I notice Inuit in the same line up as us as we check in for our flight with First Air in Ottawa. Women wearing brightly coloured amauties (a hooded jacket to carry young). A little boy with a cropped haircut running around in his striped T-shirt and a big green jawbreaker in his mouth. It feels so right to hear them speak in Inuktitut. I see the familiar northern greeting – smiling eyes, friendly conversation. I am excited to return to their land. It is a feeling of deep exhilaration.
The big, open landscape here is very, very quiet, save for the water dripping off the ice and the call of the glaucous gull or raven. There is no constant background noise of either air or vehicle traffic. You can hear children’s laughter as they play outside on the dirt roads or in melt water on the ice. You can hear the dogs howl once a day as they wait next to the qamutiq, a traditional Inuit wooden sled, parked out on the ice.
There is an Inuktitut word to describe being content out on the land in the north: quviannik, “to feel deeply happy”. This is how I am feeling.
“This is your brake and here is the throttle,” explained our Inuit guide, Sam Omik Jr.
At 9:00am we met in the lobby of the Arctic Hotel, reviewed our cold weather gear, and then jumped into the “Polar Bear Van” to head down to one of Arctic Kingdom’s sea can locations where the guides had the snowmobiles warming their engines.
I pulled down my goggles and adjusted the balaclava to completely cover my face from the fridgid Arctic air. I was happy to see the snowmobiles were equiped with both hand and feet warmers.
We mounted our snowmobiles, forming a single line of Arctic engines behind our guide, and headed out on a four hour snowmobile tour to the polynya, a tiny pin-point on Frobisher Bay where the water current is so strong that the ice is unable to freeze over even during the coldest of the winter months. To reach the open bay we first needed to wind our way around the pack ice that crumples like pieces of paper as it pushes up against the land. Even though the bay is frozen, the tides are still alive, rising, falling, and reforming ice sculpture gardens.
Soaring across the vast, white ice we explored the roaming grounds for rabbit, fox and wolf, who manage to forage on what appears to be barren land during the cold winter darkness.
Approaching the natural ice hole, we could see the vapour condensing as it rose above the water. To better spot any ring seals surfacing in the nutrient rich polynya, we took a short walk to a stone landmark known as an inuksuk, marking a place of reference, and overlooking the entirety of the open water.
We warmed our hands around a steaming cup of sweet hot chocolate and learned a few words in Inuktitut before returning to Iqaluit – the most northern capital in Canada, and an easy access point to explore the vast arctic playground.
After a few years of leading groups of adults to experience the wonders of the Arctic, I had the opportunity to introduce the Arctic, in all of its wonder, to some amazing kids. In 2010, I led two private family trips – one to Pond Inlet in April with two couples and their three children and another to Qikiqtarjuaq in August with a couple and their three children. The following is a story of two unique trips with two remarkable families and some of my favourite memories…
Pond Inlet was the stop in Canada’s Arctic for two families who were taking their children on a tour of Greenland, Iceland and Nunavut. We departed Pond Inlet amidst stunning mountains, glaciers, and fiords and set up our camp near the newly formed floe edge. One of our guides brought along his son who became fast friends with the kids on our trip and exchanged stories and experiences.
While the trip itself was only four days long, we packed as much as we could into this short time. We watched for seals on the floe edge, visited the bird cliffs, searched for polar bears, and hiked around icebergs. The highlight of trip was when the children built their own igloo (with help from our lead guide and expert igloo builder Sheatie of course!) and then spent the night in it – a quintessential Arctic experience!
Later on in the summer, I embarked on a summer adventure to the hamlet of Qikiqtarjuaq with a family of five with children aged 5, 8, and 12. We camped on a beautiful beach with views of the Baffin Mountains and Auyuittuq National Park. Agai,n our guides brought younger family members along to enrich the cultural experience. Traditional games were played, stories were shared, and everyone in the group walked away with new knowledge and friendships.
Our guides and hosts, Billy and Daisy Arnaquq, were extremely welcoming, showing us all around their “backyard”, teaching us words and phrases in Inuktitut and even inviting us to join them for dinner with their extended family. Our 12 year old guest, Kirk, had a bucket list item – to swim in all the world’s oceans – so he was very excited to check the Arctic Ocean off his list! We took advantage of what an Arctic summer has to offer by fishing for Arctic char and enjoying a mid-afternoon sushi meal, picking fresh blueberries from the surrounding area for breakfast, hiking to the top of a peak to enjoy the majestic view of the surrounding mountains and glaciers, and watching icebergs float in the crystal clear water. The pièce de résistance was an amazing encounter with a swimming polar bear who decided to make his appearance for our 5-year-old guest’s birthday. Her delight was a wonderful reward for all of us. Our trip was a great success!
Being able to share in these families’ experiences was one of the most rewarding times in my career. What a wonderful opportunity for these young people to see and experience a different country, a different culture and a different way of life. I’m sure they will carry these memories with them for a very long time, and so will I.
The day started with an exciting helicopter flight through the gorgeous Eclipse and Tremblay Sound regions near Pond inlet, Nunavut but the day ended with an even more memorable boat ride!
The Helicopter Flight
“Where do we want to land for lunch?” was the question we all were trying to answer with our eyes. We scanned the icecap as we flew over it, seemingly scraping the snow as we were so low, all the while peering out into the seemingly endless river valley below our feet. We were trying to find the perfect spot to not only give us the ability to do some light hiking but also get somewhere that we could take a few great pictures. We searched for only a short period of time before we found the perfect spot that gave us the best of both worlds. Lunch this day wasn’t just sandwiches or freeze dried rice; it was an amazing spread of salad, whole BBQ suckling pig (prepared the previous day in a custom made BBQ pit), fresh fruit, and of course, dessert. The view was spectacular and the lunch was fitting the occasion.
After our leisurely lunch we were headed north looking for the next great spot to put down. In almost no time, we came across a polar bear dining on a narwhal carcass. Quickly, we determined our plan to put down and do what we could to get a picture of that bear and the whale. After a little stalking and stealthy hiking, we eventually got close enough to get some great pictures.
It was shortly after our polar bear encounter that we happened upon what was undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I had ever seen, a pod of orca. We followed them with the helicopter and were inspired when we saw that they were heading towards the vicinity of our basecamp. We knew what we had to do. Get to our boats!
We quickly made for the basecamp and I am sure our pilot somehow found an extra “gear” in there somewhere. Within minutes of landing we were donning our PFDs and fuelling boats for Part Two of our adventure.
Orca from the Air
The Boat Ride
To say there was excitement in the air as we boarded our boat, which was captained by our faithful senior Inuit Guide Sheattie Tagak, was an understatement. It was with an almost nervous anticipation that we left the beach, without even a thought of dinner, to try and intercept our cetacean quarry. We were armed only with cameras and energy candy bars. After all, those will get you through anything in a pinch.
It didn’t take long before we came across the pod of orca. There must have been 20 of them but quite possibly, there were even more than that. It was impossible to tell for sure. In the midst of the commotion there was something we weren’t expecting to see but after a minute of staring in disbelief we saw a narwhal The orca had ‘taken’ a narwhal and were doing what killer whales do best with their prey. A simply amazing sight and one that I could only hope to one day be fortunate enough to see again. We watched the pod circle the narwhal and within a matter of minutes, the feeding frenzy was over, but that certainly wasn’t the end of the show.
Orca Up Close
The orca, freshly fuelled from a late evening snack, decided it was play time. The show they gave us for the next 3 hours took our breath away. They breached, they swam on their back while doing tail-slaps, they cruised in and out of our wake and prop bubbles, time and time again we literally made eye contact with our new found friends. I am sure we could have reached out and touched them on many occasions. They were playing with us and we were gladly reciprocating with them. It may sound weird but it even seemed that the orca were excited that we were with them. As the juveniles swam next to us and under us, you could almost see them smile, but maybe ear to ear grins are infectious?
Breaching Orca with Iceberg – Lucky Shot!
I feel extremely privileged to have had such an amazing and intimate encounter with such beautiful and intelligent animals. We drained our camera batteries, filled our memory cards, and found ourselves babbling like schoolchildren throughout the encounter. I wonder what amazing animal encounters 2014 will have in store for us!
Arctic Kingdom is pleased to report that its first floe-edge sprout operation was a success! Four flats of baby arugula flourished on a diet made up exclusively of paper towels, iceberg water, and 24-hour sun. Our four arugula flats grew from seed to garnish in seven days, and our guests reported their flavour as, “spicy,” and their appearance as, “sturdy, chubby, and dark green.” Once they were one-inch-high, the sprouts were harvested, and used to add flare to plated dinners, as well as add a spicy and vigorous note to salads and grains.
Camp manager and resident geologist Angus Simpson couldn’t prove that 10,000 year old iceberg water had a positive affect on the plants, but we found little else to explain their extraordinary ability to emerge unharmed from a freeze and thaw cycle that would kill a typical salad green.
Here is how and why we did it.
Why: Pond Inlet has food security issues, partially related to the reasonable inconsistencies found in a food delivery system that relies mostly on plane delivery from Manitoba or Montreal. Herbs that a cook might have ordered in from a Sobey’s in Winnipeg might not make it on the plane. If they do, the next challenge is ensuring they make it through up to three plane transfers unharmed. On top of this, most produce prices are triple or quadruple of the same goods in the south.
A sprout farm is a low cost alternative, and avoids potential problems that could be caused through relying on costly basil that might not survive its 2,500 kilometre trip from the south.
We also did it just to see if we could, to demystify the process of germination for staff and guests that might not have attempted similar projects themselves, and because baby plants are so attractive.
How: One of our cooks and flow-edge gardener Katie Mathieu picked up four generic, clear-topped germination flats from a hardware store and some packages of Mumm’s organic sprouting seeds mixes.
Once in Pond Inlet, Katie used a meat thermometer to punch drainage holes, six-inches apart in a honeycomb pattern in the black plastic bottoms of all the sprouting trays. The trays were then lined with six layers of clean paper towels, and spread with arugula sprout seeds in the spacing shown below.
The towels and seeds were moistened with pure water until they were thoroughly damp, but not soaking. The clear plastic top was put on the trays, and the trays were put in the hall closet (at our Pond Inlet staff house) to germinate away from the sun. There are conflicting opinions on whether darkness is necessary for sprout germination, but because we were working on a tight timeline we decided to simulate an underground environment as best as we could. Later on, in camp with the 24-hour sun, this false night was achieved by covering the sprout flats with an Arctic Kingdom camping towel.
The container that you can see just outside the tent window is the gravity-fed kerosene supply for the stove that warms the dining tent,the connected kitchen, and the adjacent sprout farm. The stove is turned off at night, and then on again at 6am in the morning so we can thaw pieces of iceberg for drinking water, and create a cozy place for you to make toast, drink coffee or tea, and relax before breakfast.
Back to the farm! Katie would like to note that sanitation is key in all phases of this operation and she would like you to wash your hands well, use clean water, and clean air-dried trays.
The first four-day old flats, sown in Pond Inlet, were carefully packed for the four-hour snowmobile trip to the campsite. First, extra water was allowed to evaporate to avoid ice crystal formation, which could damage the plant cell’s walls. Next, tray tops were taped on with masking tape. The flats were wrapped in two layers of plastic garbage bags and then a wool sweater to reduce shock. They arrived at the site unharmed, and when guests arrived three-days later they were already showing their first true leaves.
To avoid mildew and maintain a proper moisture level for plant life, all of the trays were gently rinsed with pure water, twice a day, as soon as they showed signs of growth. On the day before harvest the watering was stopped to simplify the harvest. When damp, the sprouts will stick together and won’t be loose enough to use as garnish right away. After one day of imposed drought, we would lift the now dry and sprout-covered paper towel mats off of their trays and use scissors, or Katie’s extremely sharp fish knife, to cut the sprouts off the paper towel. We would do this above a paper towel lined container; the sprouts would fall in, would be covered with a moistened paper towel, and then stored in the large shelter tent that served as our walk-in fridge.
One May evening, during a lamb dinner on the floe-edge, the sprouts being used for garnish froze solid. Head Chef Philip Heilborn was pleased and shocked to report that the frozen sprouts thawed perfectly and showed no signs of wear and tear from their whale watching related ordeal. Later in the week he used them to simulate edible lichen on a caribou Carpaccio dish, “to great success.”
The strong flavour and attractive texture of the sprouts were invaluable to our kitchen during the two-weeks where the herb orders did not catch their flight.
The entire operation, flats and seeds included cost us less than $30. We consider our experiment farm a companion to the creative problem solving that is a hallmark of the culture of the north, and the newest addition to your Arctic Kingdom experience.
We look forward to future seasons of sprouting and gardening in the Arctic, and continuing to make your trip with us as enjoyable and surprising as possible. Next up on the floe edge farm schedule, Oyster Mushrooms!
“There must be over 20 bowhead whales!” Exclaimed Graham Dickson, Chief Expedition Officer for Arctic Kingdom Expeditions.
It was August 2012, and while scouting a new area just south of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut by boat with a couple of photographers on Arctic Kingdom’s trip “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island” Dickson, and the photographers were witnessing the act of bowhead whales rubbing their 60’ long bodies on the rocks at the bottom of the ocean floor to scrape off their skin – a process also known as ‘molting’.
Bowheads rubbing in the shallow waters of the coast of Baffin Island allowed with snorkeler Todd Mintz approaching
One of the photographers, Todd Mintz, a Canadian photographer who has travelled with Arctic Kingdom to photograph polar bears, muskox and narwhal since 2010 couldn’t resist putting on his drysuit and floating in the water to witness the behavior underwater. He took this video with a GoPro camera mounted on his camera.
When asked what is was like to have a 100 ton whale approach to within 5 feet of him, Mintz replied, “That was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. I had no idea what he was going to do. I was frozen on the spot, and only remembered to take some pictures at the last second. That never happens.”
View from the boat when the bowhead whale surfaced
Mintz also managed to retrieve some bowhead whale skin that was floating in the water.
At the time Dickson and the photographers on board knew they were witnessing something special.
The fact that there were such a high concentration of bowhead whales in 30’ of shallow water is very rare as bowhead whales are known to be pelagic or deep water whales. Second, the water clarity was crystal clear and to our knowledge there has never before been such clear underwater photographs taken of bowhead whales. Third, the pieces of bowhead whale skin in the water, also to our recollection had not been seen before.
To verify what we saw, we consulted with the Canadian expert in bowhead whales – retired bowhead whale ecologist and researcher Kerry Finley. Finley has studied the Baffin Island bowhead whales since 1983 along the coast of Baffin Island mainly a few hundred kilometers to the north in Isabella Bay. He had not been to the location where we saw the rubbing activity.
“The place where whales go” according to local Inuit elders
After discussing the behavior of the bowhead whales with Finley and reviewing photos and video taken on the trip he commented, “Your photographers captured just the sort of image that we tried so many years to obtain…I had hoped to document the rubbing behaviour that I suspected was taking place but to no avail. It is interesting that you actually saw pieces of skin which I never saw. It is definitely molting behavior that you saw”.
Finley went on to say, “What you have found, could very well be a very special place for bowhead whale observation”
The bowhead whales were finning, logging (resting on the surface), tail slapping, and rubbing on the rocks in the shallow waters
Upon returning to the Arctic Kingdom base camp that evening one of the local Inuit elders came to our camp. We described to him where we went and what we saw. His response was simple – “Yes, you went to the place where the bowhead whales go”.
Apparently we are not the first ones to have ‘discovered’ the bowhead whales and where they go to molt. The Inuit people have known about them all along.
Arctic Kingdom is planning on returning Aug 1 to 7 and Aug 8 to 14 2013 to the “place where the bowhead whales go” along with our Inuit friends and we hope to repeat August 2012 encounter.
There are still a few limited spaces left for interested persons who would like to join. For more details visit this page: “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island”
Or Contact: Thomas Lennartz – thomasarctickingdomcom
Erik was from Austria. Robert and Kendra were from Hong Kong. Micki and Chuck were from LA, Joanne was Australian and Pat was a friend from Ottawa. Most of us had never met before, but we greeted each other like adventurers with a common goal: combing the western edge of Hudson Bay for mother polar bears and their months-old cubs. Stowing our gear and chatting excitedly, we boarded the VIA train in Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Chesnaye, 60 kilometres south. It was a slow ride south through the boreal forest, but with every kilometer clicking past, our anticipation grew. The spring 2013 Polar Bear Mother and Newborn Cub Photo Safari with Arctic Kingdom was about to begin.
Two hours later, we rolled to a stop in Chesnaye. Very late on a very cold March night when the temperature hovered at -30C, we stepped off the train onto the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.
2 hour train ride from Churchill to the Lodge
There, the Lodge staff met and whisked us into their specially-designed Arctic vehicles – vans with special tracks instead of wheels. A quick 30-minute drive brought us to our home for the next seven nights. Ten adventurers were already at the lodge and they were buzzing with elation. That day, they’d experienced an amazing opportunity to capture, on camera, a polar bear and her cubs. Needless to say, our excitement and their stories kept us up until after midnight.
Our group from all corners of the globe – from Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Canada and the UK – heading out in the tracked van in search of mother and cubs
Day 1 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
At 9am the next morning, after a chef-made breakfast, we boarded the specially-equipped van. Parkas on, photo equipment at the ready, we crossed our fingers and toes in the hopes that we would see a mother and her cubs close to their den.
Just twenty minutes later. “There they are!” shouted our guide, pointing to a Momma bear feeding her cubs. From a respectful distance, we observed the tender interplay of nature and nurture. Once she was done, our guides positioned the vehicles and we clambered to get all our gear on and our photo equipment ready.
Tracked vehicles seem to watch over the tripods set up close to mother and cubs bear den
Stepping outside, the cold took our breath away. And yet…this is what we had come so far to see. We stood together, slightly unsure of what would happen. Even so, in that moment I thought, how lucky am I to experience this!
Waiting for mother and cubs to appear…any second now….
Lined up, our fingers on camera buttons, we watched, took photos and observed. The cubs tumbled over each other joyfully, with their mother nearby.
And then, the unexpected happened. Momma bear awoke from her rest, stretched, rolled onto her belly, sat up and sniffed the air in our direction. Slowly, she walked towards us. Our guides were immediately on alert and started their snowmobiles. She wasn’t aggressive in her approach—but she was curious.
Once the bears got too close, the guides moved in and gently suggested they head in another direction. The only sound over our overawed, pounding hearts was the quick click-click-click of our camera shutters as we captured each movement.
Perhaps convinced we meant no harm, Momma bear and her cubs went back towards their den to rest. As they slept, we chatted, moved in and out of the vans and tried to keep warm—the temperature by then was around -40C (-55 with the wind chill). And we marveled. On our first day, we had spent 10 hours watching this family. They had approached us four times, we had magic light and an all-around eventful day. We weren’t sure how any other day would compare.
Day 2 at the Newborn Polar Bear Cub Lodge
The next day, we searched fruitlessly for the family…but eventually, our guides located them later in the day. The babies played, slept and never strayed far from their mother’s side. They were adorable, and yet we had to remind ourselves that one day, they too would become the most fearsome predators in the Arctic.
Day 3 at the Newborn Cubs Lodge
The wind howled across the tundra, forcing the little family to hunker down. Even so, the light and setting were absolutely stunning. Momma bear put her face into the snow to sleep while the cubs played with each other. In between sniffing around and nosing each other, they crawled all over their mother, giving us unbelievable photographic opportunities. Once again, they approached us with interest.
Day 4 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
After such excellent luck, it came as no surprise that it ran out by the fourth day of shooting. Our guides had spotted three families, but they were deep in the park and the trek would have been too treacherous to make in our vans. We had beautiful light and spent a few hours sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for word from our guides.
But the day wasn’t a total loss: An extraordinary sunset morphed into a mesmerizing, noble display of northern lights early in the night. We definitely had nothing to complain about.
Day 5 at the Newborn Polar Bear Lodge
There are days in the North when it feels like you’re on a movie set. The light is gorgeous, the landscape was Hollywood perfect and the players all know their parts well.
The day dawned cold and windy, but a new mother and her very tiny, very new cubs fresh from the den emerged to explore the world around them. Everywhere Momma bear went, they followed. If she stopped to sniff the air, they stopped, too.
Polar bears use the small hilly areas to make their dens and there, we watched them sleep most of the day. Anytime we spotted movement, we would run to our cameras. It wasn’t the best day for shooting—the wind was strong and blew snow straight at us. But I don’t think any of us minded.
Day 6 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Could anything top the week we had experienced? In the Arctic, nothing is a sure thing. There are too many variables, too much can change in a heartbeat. And yet, in many ways, our penultimate day at Wapusk was the best. Under the biggest tree for kilometers, our guides found the family. It was another beautiful background. After hours of sleeping, Momma Bear got up and walked in our direction with her cubs. Our guides warned her with their snowmobiles. She walked back to the tree and we watched her try to feed her cub. She took her big front paw and gently nudged him towards her. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes about how, regardless of species, our desire to both protect and feel safe. We want to feel loved. We want to be nourished.
At the end of the day, we had the unparalleled luck to have all three polar bears – mother with her two cubs – walked right past us. Trigger-happy and filled with excitement, we watched her walk away with her cubs close behind her. It was a fitting farewell and I was overcome. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed. I felt so blessed. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for so long. The Polar Bear Mother and Cubs Photo Safari trip had fulfilled my dreams.
The return back to Churchill was uneventful. Upon arriving on a bright, sunny day a bit warmer than what we’d experienced in Wapusk we had a dog sled ride and enjoyed the afternoon. But our hearts and minds were far away with the mother and newborn cubs that were back in Wapusk National Park.
ABOUT MICHELLE VALBERG
This was Michelle Valberg’s first trip (of many) as an expedition leader with Arctic Kingdom.
Michelle Valberg is a globally recognized and celebrated photographer, whose quest to capture the beautiful and unique on camera has taken her to all corners of the world.
Valberg’s stunning, and at times haunting photographs are highly sought after by art collectors globally, and have been showcased in various exhibits and features across North America. In 2011, Valberg’s work was the subject of a critically acclaimed 3-month solo exhibition at the esteemed Canadian Museum of Nature.
It wasn’t my first time in Antarctica. I’d been there before in 2007, when I boarded the Vavilov in Ushuaia, steeling my resolve for the next 48-60 hours of the legendary Drake Passage.
It wasn’t that bad – on the way there. The ocean was fairly flat, but the main issue was boredom. Sure, there were lectures and an opportunity to meet your fellow travellers, but outside, it was just grey – miles and miles of grey. Our of the 10-day program, more than 4 days were spent crossing the Drake.
The way home was a different story. We had 30-foot waves and, standing on the top deck, you could watch the bow all-but-disappear into the deep blue as we crashed into wave after wave. The dining room was a ghost town, and the few people that did make it to dinner had to contend with holding onto their plates so they wouldn’t end up on the floor. The staff did their best to make sure everyone who was laid out in their cabin was comfortable, but most just wanted the motion to stop.
Day 1: Punta Arenas
So I had the opportunity to join a new Fly-Cruise adventure to Antarctica this January onboard the Ocean Nova, a ship I know well from previous expeditions. I arrived in Punta Arenas the day before and checked into the Hotel Rey Don Felipe, (http://www.hotelreydonfelipe.com/) a quaint hotel, with excellent service. Dinner that evening was at La Pergola Restaurant at the historic the Hotel José Nogueira (http://www.hotelnogueira.com/restaurant/?lang=en ) under exceptional art painted by none other than Shackleton’s great (or is it Great-Great?) granddaughter.
Everyone was very excited for the morning to come – this was Christmas eve for the travel die-hards.
Day 2: Punta Arenas to Antarctica
The next day we woke early to join the flight from Punta Arenas to Frei Station (Chile’s most important base in Antarctica) aboard the BAE-146 jet. This 70-passenger jet is designed for short take off and landings and is perfect for the job at hand. Fog on the runway at Frei delayed our departure so instead we were taken for a tour of the town, including its impressive cemetery and it’s natural history museum. After lunch we moved to the airport , quickly got aboard, and had landed in Antarctica by 6pm.
We were greeted with temperatures hovering around freezing, with the last wisps of fog making our approach in Zodiac to the Ocean Nova a bit unreal. Coming aboard, we were welcomed by the friendly crew, and I was pleased to see some nice improvements to the décor of the ship – it still looks a little like it came from an Ikea catalog, but it is very well laid out and the staff is top-notch.
Dinner was delicious, we’ll-presented and soon followed by a nightcap in the Panorama lounge at the top of the ship. We were, indeed, in the Antarctic.
Day 3: The Weddell Sea
We awoke to brilliant sunshine as we edged into the Weddell Sea. Boarding the Zodiacs, we ventured out, along the frozen line of ice, in search of wildlife. The sea was mainly frozen with ice and stuck iceberg stretching out to the horizon. We encountered a few crabeater and leopard seals, who were mainly indifferent to our presence – allowing us some great opportunities for photos.
Relocating after lunch, we came to Brown Bluff, which was, as promised, brown. It was bright, sunny, and a pleasure to be out of deck, as you can see in the time lapse video.
This would be our first chance to stand on the Antarctic continent. Here we also had our first face-to-face meeting with the locals – the Adelie and Gentoo penguins. There were thousands of penguins here, going about their business as if we didn’t exist. There were times we actually had to get out of their way as they went about their very deliberate way. Also on the site were nesting Snow Petrels, but the penguins definitely stole the show. We had about 3 hours to spend with them, and many of us got an Antarctic tan – from chin to mid-forehead, minus the sunglasses, of course.
The evening brought a lecture on the early explorers, and the case for who really was the first to discover Antarctica – still a hotly contested subject it turns out!
Day 4: O’Higgins Station
During the night we re-cross Bransfield Strait, to tuck into the west side of the peninsula, and in the morning we find ourselves approaching O’Higgins Station. We were their first – and given that we were at the tail end of the season – most likely their last, expedition ship visit. The 42 staff at that base were mainly from Chile, but there were also some German and UK scientists, all working on products ranging from Climate Change to Penguin breeding. Our group was definitely a welcome distraction, with the base staff taking as many photos of us, as we were of them. We were treated to a guided tour, and were able to meet one-on-one with some of the scientists to discuss their work. Outside, the penguins continued to mill about.
Fog descended in the afternoon as we made our way to rugged Astrolabe Island. It was a lively Zodiac cruise with some new species – Chinstrap Penguins, Fur Seals, nesting Fulmars, Terns and Cape Petrels. Then we ate, then we drank, then we slept.
Day 5: Southernmost
The morning find us standing off of Orne Harbour, for another chance to set foot on the White Continent. The setting was dramatic, with a glacier at the end of the bay that seemed to reach up to the sky, making the Ocean Nova look very small. We hike up the ridge to a great aerial view, and smell the Chinstrap Penguins at the top before we actually lay eyes on them. The view from this point is amazing, and many of the way down slide on the snow – some for the first time in their lives.
Afternoon brings Cuverville Island and a walk on the beach among the Gentoo penguins and their young chicks. We have endless opportunities to photograph them and watch as the small chicks chase their parents (or any other Penguin for that matter) as they emerge from the water, looking for a taste of what they’ve caught.
Back to the ship and it’s our first close whale encounter – a small pod of Humpbacks has found the ship interesting and comes to check us out. We stand in the wind, smelling the evening’s bbq dinner from the upper deck, and are treated to many flukes and blows.
Dinner is served outside on the upper deck, with icebergs in the distance changing colours from gold to crimson in the waning light.
Day 6: Whaler’s Bay and Yankee Harbour
This morning we woke early to see the ship come through Neptune’s Bellows, a tricky navigation due to the shallow depth and narrow gap, and into the volcanic caldera of Deception Island. He we set foot on steaming sand, heated by caldera, which is which is quite warm to the touch. True to its name, this was once a great whaling station, with several nations represented at the turn of the past century. It was totally abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey after the 1967 eruption. We walk among the most complete ruins of whaling history in the Antarctica. The rustic rendering tanks and dilapidated old buildings are stark reminders of how hard work and life must have been from these early whalers. A brisk walk takes us up to Neptune’s Window for great views south towards the continent and back toward the bay.
A few hearty souls trip down to their bathing suits, or in some cases their underwear and tear off into the water for a polar dip before he head back to the ship for lunch. I did it last time I was here, so I figured I could let myself off – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, right?
After lunch we arrive at Yankee Harbour for a beach walk across the way from a large and frequently calving glacier. Here we find – you guessed it – penguins – but also a few skuas fighting over a set of penguin remains. There are also a number of fur seals up on the beach loudly playing together like a couple of puppies at the dog park.
In the evening we had a photo show of the trip and we sat with our fellow adventurers to rehash the trip. It had been an intense five days in one of the world’s most remote places, and we were all richer for having made the journey.
Day 7: Antarctica to Punta Arenas
We return to Frei Station on our last day and watch from the ship as the plane lands on the gravel runway, kicking up a cloud of dust. It’s what we previously imagined to be proper Antarctic weather outside, with a 30knot wind and sleet stinging our skin – quite unlike anything we actually experienced during our trip. We jump in to the Zodiacs one last time and head to the beach, walking the half mile or so up to the plane. We pass a bunch of the uninitiated – those who haven’t yet had their 7th continent, and wave as we walk by – knowing they’re in for the adventure of their lives.
Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun as a result of solar flares. Solar flares are explosions ejected by the Sun. These flares contain charged particles and if they head towards Earth, carried on a solar wind, Earth’s magnetic fields divert them.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Most of the particles disappear into space but if some enter our upper atmosphere, around the Polar Regions where those magnetic fields converge, then these charged particles react with the gases found there. These magnetic fields create auroral ovals around the top and bottom of our planet which move and distort as the Earth rotates and solar flare activity increases. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south.
Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow. You have to be within an auroral oval for a chance of seeing this particle/gas reaction hence why you need to travel north.
2) When and where is the best time to see them?
The Northern Lights halo occurs primarily at 60 degree latitude
Auroral activity is cyclic – known as the Sunspot Cycle, peaking roughly every 11 years. Winter in the north is generally a good season to view lights – although this can also be the coldest time. The long periods of darkness and the frequency of clear nights provide many good opportunities to watch the auroral displays but to . Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch for auroral displays is local midnight. Located around both magnetic poles of the earth is a halo like ring called an aurora oval – generally found at the 60 degree latitude in the northern hemisphere. The area directly beneath each aurora oval is the best place to see the aurora most often. North American locations under the northern oval include Yellowknife, Churchill, Iqaluit, Canada, Fairbanks, Alaska. Other parts of the world including Lapland, Norway, southern Greenland and Iceland will also see the northern lights.
3) What Is So Special About 2014?
The Sunspot Cycle and how it is linked to sightings of the northern lights. The cycle is generally around 11 years and the 2014 season it reaches its peak, the Solar Max. Sunspots are temporary dark patches which are cooler than the rest of the surface of the Sun and when these increase in number, so too does the amount of solar flare activity and the subsequent possibility of auroral displays. This doesn’t mean you won’t see displays during other periods of the cycle, as activity is constant, just that displays at the peak may be more intense or more frequent.
4) Why Are Displays Different Colours?
Colors and patterns are from the types of ions or atoms being energized as they collide with the atmosphere and are affected by lines of magnetic force. Displays may take many forms, including rippling curtains, pulsating globs, traveling pulses, or steady glows. Altitude affects the colors. Blue violet/reds occur below 60 miles (100 km), with bright green strongest between 60-150 miles (100-240 km). Above 150 miles (240 km) ruby reds appear.
5) Will I Definitely See Them?
Viewing Northern Lights over Iqaluit
We suggest locations that have the highest likelihood and where weather conditions are generally better than anywhere else but cannot guarantee sightings. And what’s more, Arctic Kingdom suggests locations where during the day whilst you are not star gazing, there are many activities to keep you occupied while we wait for night to fall. Activities, to name a few, can include dogsledding, igloo building or photographing wildlife. Patience and time is the key as well as a clear, cloudless winter’s night. Displays can occur any time from around 5pm but most activity tends to be a little later.
6) Bonus! How Do I Photograph Them?
Tripods with long exposures are needed to capture the northern lights
We said ‘Top 5’ – but we are going to add one more as we are asked this question very often. Generally you need to keep the camera steady using a tripod as exposures from several seconds to almost 20 give the best results. SLR camera users should try a wide angle lens with a wide aperture as well as setting their ISO levels to high. For further tips, you can ask your Arctic Kingdom trip leader when on your northern lights trip. It takes practice to get the settings right as the northern lights photographs you see in books and postcards showing spectacular night skies have been put together by people with years of experience. This is not to say that complete novices don’t succeed – we’ve had some amazing shots sent in to us.
More often than not, people tend to simply stand beneath a display and marvel at its magnificence – also beats having to take your gloves off to try and work your camera!