“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.”
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
polar/Brown Bear adult hybrid. Rothschild Museum, Tring, England. Photography by Sarah Hartwell, distributed under GNU Free Documentation License.
Also known as a “grolar bear“, the Pizzly is a rare hybrid of polar and grizzly bears, occasionally found in the wild as well as in captivity.
Slate.com reports that recently scientists were able to confirm a strange bear shot by an Inuvialuit hunter was indeed, a pizzly. This raises a question as to why these two different species are able to create fertile offspring. Unlike, for example, a horse and a donkey.
The answer to why we don’t see this kind of interbreeding more frequently lies primarily in geographical separation, along with differences in timing when it comes to mating season. Scientists suspect we may see more cross-breeding, including among marine mammals, as climate change forces groups of animals to re-locate into territories already inhabited by similar species.
CBC news shared a tourist-shot video of a pod of orca whales hunting a minke whale. Unfortunately, they don’t allow for embedding, but do click through to their site to view the film. This behavior isn’t unusual, and a number of video examples of it can be found online – including this (slightly graphic) one from the Vancouver Aquarium.
Arctic Kingdom founder Graham shared some information on the habits of orca whales -
Orcas come up into the arctic to hunt the arctic whales as well. They are observed every year in communities around Nunavut from Baffin Island to Hudson Bay but it is impossible to know when they will appear or which direction they head as they are transient and can move hundreds of miles every day.
Orcas have a dorsal fin and so must stay away from areas with too much ice cover. Arctic whales (Bowhead,Narwhal, Beluga) have flat backs (no pronounced dorsal fin) and so can rise to breathe through holes under the ice (which an orca cannot do). Arctic whales are therefore protected from Orca during the winter and spring months by the ice cover but vulnerable when the ice disappears in summer and fall. There is some concern that decreasing ice cover may increase the incidence of orca predation on arctic whales.
Of course whales must sleep. But what are the logistics of breathing underwater while at rest? Graham Dickson sent this article to me the other day - I realized it’s such an obvious question, I never thought to ask.