“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 new 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
Travel journalist Liz Fleming joined the Arctic Kingdom team for the polar bear and narwhal safari north of Pond Inlet in Sirmilik National Park in June. Her blog posts give a day-by-day look at life on the ice, 80 kilometers from anywhere.
The day began with flights, from Ottawa to Iqaluit, then north to Pond Inlet. Though First Air proved to be a happy surprise – I’d been expecting only very basic service and a potentially bumpy ride. It’s hard to believe a small airline like First Air provides the kind of service they do – hot meals, friendly
attendants, blanket and pillows. Air Canada – take a lesson!
In the Iqaluit airport, I spotted some other members of our group and introduced myself to Cornelius, Justin and Jens. I’m not gifted with great detective skills – they were easy to spot and so was I. Grinning from ear to ear, wearing coats way too bulky for the airport and wheeling duffel bags straining their zippers
– we were stoked and it was obvious!
We boarded the plane and filled most of the seats. I sat next to a petite Inuit woman named Martha on her way home to Pond Inlet after having been in Ottawa
for surgery. After a bit of where-are-you-from-and-what-do-you-do conversation, I learned Martha – four years my junior – was already the
grandmother of three. She was sorry to hear that my young sons haven’t yet given me any grandchildren. “Maybe soon,” she smiled, while I fervently
hoped they’d take their time!
After a moment’s silence, Martha asked, “You’re a southerner. Do you think seal hunting’s wrong?”
Before I could even process the idea that I’m a ‘southerner’ (my Florida friends would think that was a riot, I’m sure) Martha continued.
“I read an article in the newspaper in Ottawa about Inuit ‘slaughtering’ seals. That’s not right. We don’t slaughter them. We take only what we need and we use everything. We have to hunt to feed our families.” She paused and gestured to the vast frozen landscape below. “Look out there. I can’t grow anything on that land and the food in the stores in Pond Inlet is too expensive to buy much. If southerners don’t want us to hunt – what
should we feed our families?”
I didn’t have any answers but could sense my worldview was in for a good shakeup.
We arrived at the airport in Pond Inlet to be greeted by Mike Beedell who’d come to collect us, and our mountain of luggage. Mike’s a bearded ball of craziness – alternately cracking jokes, singing snatches of old rock and roll, sharing fascinating nature factoids, and telling the kind of stories of his travels in the wild that make you realize that you’ve found a latter day Daniel Boone.
Having stuffed the little hotel bus to bursting, we made the five-minute trek to our lodge. After sorting out room keys in the lobby, Mike announced that we’d meet for dinner at 6pm so we hustled to toss bags into rooms and wrestled with the sketchy wifi to send messages home. We’d arrived.
The evening included a walk to the local cultural association building for an evening of dancing, singing and displays of strength by some truly talented local Inuit performers. Throat-singers explained the jokingly competitive aspect of their eerie performance while young athletes kicked and
wrestled, showing incredible strength. Throughout the performance, the overriding theme was the hunt – whether
for seals or walrus or caribou. Dance steps, drumming, even the sounds made by the throat singers – everything was linked and I could hear Martha’s words in my mind, “If southerners don’t want us to hunt – what should we feed our families?”
Though the cultural performances were fascinating, perhaps the most important moments of the night happened at dinner. After introducing himself, and his colleague Tom Lennartz who would be with us for our great adventure, Mike Beedell asked the group members to share their reasons for coming on the Arctic
Kingdom trip. Why were we there? People talked about their love of wildlife and of years of longing to see the Arctic – clearly, we were a wildly varied
collection of backgrounds and personalities but we shared this one important passion.
Mike listened carefully to each comment and then added his own, “I think we’re all looking for some magic in our lives,” he said. “And I think you’re going to find it here.”
The ancient arctic was nothing like the frozen north we know today. Warm, with subtropical conditions, its prehistoric waters might have appeared a little more inviting than the icy deeps we know today (though personally, we’re partial to the icy deep).
That is, until you get a load of what lurked beneath. The recent discovery of 375-million-year-old fish fossil on Ellesmere Island up in Nunavut reveals that the subtropical paradise was home to a large predatory fish. According to Live Science,
The lobe-finned fish, now called Laccognathus embryi, probably grew to about 5 or 6 feet long (1.5 to 1.8 meters) and had a wide head with small eyes and robust jaws lined with large piercing teeth. The beast was likely a bottom-dweller, waiting on the seafloor to lunge at prey passing by.
The Laccoganthus embryi, in addition to its intimidating jaws, was a lobe-finned fish, sporting what scientists believe might have been an early evolutionary stage in the development of limbs. Another transitional fish (believed to be the “missing link” between fish and land animals) was previously discovered in the same location, leading scientists to believe that they interacted, and even competed for food.
But for me, the takeaway is this: There are some amazing things lurking beneath Arctic waters. But luckily? The fossil record is as close as we’ll get to this.
Image credit: Jason Poole/ANSP
Read more over at Live Science
Last week’s solar flares made for some fantastic aurora displays in the Northern Hemisphere. And according to Space.com, skywatchers in northern climates can expect more of the same, as intermittent geomagnetic storms stir things up once again.
The auroras are a fixture of Arctic nights, and can often make a spectacular backdrop to a night at camp, as seen in the photo above, from an AK expedition to Torngat.
But Arctic isn’t even the most extreme spot to view the auroras. Space.com reports that they’re visible from the International space station, as well.
This photo was taken last week by NASA astronaut Ron Garan:
I guess we’ll just have to content ourselves with having access to some of the best views on Earth.
Impacts of Climate change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) is a multi-year NASA shipborne project. The bulk of the research will take place in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea’s in the summers of 2010 and 2011.
The North Pole is found northeast off the coast of Greenland, in the middle of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean and roughly near the center of this image. This is the northernmost point on Earth, and defines the geodectic latitude of 90 degrees north. From the North Pole, all directions are south.
Our team is currently at the floe edge in Arctic Bay through the rest of this month, and have been posting incredible images of the Beluga and Narwhal they’re observing! Follow us on Facebook for even more photos and updates direct from the source.
Travelling over the sea ice from the floe edge to the AK base camp 10km back from the edge
We’ve talked here before about scientists working closely with indigenous people to gain a fuller understanding of how weather patterns are changing. Who better to notice even the smallest shift in weather events than people who’ve inhabited a place for many generations; carefully preserving such knowledge? Unfortunately, climate change is occurring, and it’s those same people who are at the forefront to be affected.
This story from The Globe and Mail highlights how the combination of local knowledge and scientific research can help solidify a theory. In September of 1999, Inuvialuit people living in the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories were astounded by an extremely violent Arctic Ocean storm which headed inland 20 kilometers, destroying crops and mingling salt water with fresh. The elders claimed that no such event had ever occurred before in their people’s history.