Raw research from the waters off Torngat Mountains National Park
Torngat Mountains National Park is the third entry in a series of posts from the journal of Arctic Kingdom's Jason Hillier who spent 17 days aboard our charter vessel M V Cape Race in the company of researchers.
Sunshine Fiord - Torngat Mountains National Park
As we sailed the coastline of Torngat Mountains National Park we encountered amazing fiords, most notably Sunshine Fiord. We had to hole up overnight there to escape some wind. We had crossed the Davis Strait and made a beeline for Labrador in order to get the researchers on shore and the dive team in the water again.
We had a great day of sampling, and diving in the waters just off the Park. The epic scenery and the mountains of Torngat, especially Seven Islands Bay, was a great backdrop to a spectacular day and we even knocked off a couple more successful dives.
The sailing continued past Saglek Basecamp. After dropping off our Parks Canada crew, we made our way to Makkovik for fuel, water and supplies. Makkovik is an Inuit community on the coast of Labrador. It was great to be on land again, but our researchers never tired and we were able to squeeze in three dives. A great inter-tidaling-sample effort from our shore team meant that they came home with not only specimens but fresh berries. A delicious treat!
Jason Hillier, one of Arctic Kingdom's senior Team Members, spent 17 days aboard our charter vessel M V Cape Race in September. He has shared his log entries with us.
M V Cape Race at sea
September 1, 2014 - Qikiqtarjuaq, NU - Day One aboard MV Cape Race.
Today, we set sail on a "reverse" course of Arctic Kingdom's The Best of Labrador, Baffin Island and Greenland. Stepping out of the airport, I was struck by my luck; a sunny, warm day and no wind. It was a great day to get on a ship and start an adventure!
After meeting the crew, who had strolled up the road to the airport to find me, once they saw the plane land, we piled into a Zodiac to make our way to my home for the next 17 days.
We were sailing from Baffin Island to the Torngats in Labrador, through the Strait of Belle Island and down the west coast of my home province to the island of Newfoundland. We were bringing 12 university scientists on an epic voyage to collect data and samples of everything from kelp to invertebrates to freshwater algae. We would also conduct bird surveys.
The team consisted of cold water divers and "inter-tidalers" that we affectionately referred to as Team Bear Bait as they are biologists who wade through inter-tidal zones collecting specimens. Our Parks Canada Bear Monitor was on board to ensure everyone was safe and sound throughout all the shore excursions, both inside and outside the National Park. But it’s always fun to tease.
“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 2 to 6, 2015 and Aug 6 to 18 2015 to the “place where the bowhead whales go” along with our Inuit friends and we hope to repeat the encounter. 2016 dates are also planned around the same timeframe.
EDIT 2014: Arctic Kingdom returned in 2014 and observed the bowhead whale molting behavior with an excited group of guests.
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 – [email protected]
By: Liz Fleming
The last blog from Liz Fleming's trip to the Arctic. Read below for the final fascinating installment.
What an adventure!
There was less laughter than usual at breakfast on the last morning. We all seemed to be struggling to swallow the idea that the best adventure ever was coming to an end. Looking around the dining tent, I realized that in the space of just seven days, total strangers had become close friends –
friends who lived in places like Berlin, Seattle, Melbourne, Singapore and Pond Inlet. The gaps between us were going to seem vast.
Packing up, loading our bags into the komatiks, saying goodbye to the few camp staff members who weren’t coming with us to Pond Inlet, taking group photo after group photo – it was a long morning. As we pulled away, heading back to town, our yellow tents quickly shrank until they were nothing but tiny spots of colour on the flat, blue-grey ice. I think we all felt our hearts contract then too.
Mike and Tom had warned us that the trip back to Pond would be a long one. During our week away, the ice had shifted and larger than usual cracks had appeared. The acrobatic snowmobile leaps we’d seen on the trip out were going to seem like child’s play.
Who knew you could make bridges from chunks of floating ice? I certainly didn’t, but fortunately it was a skill Tom and the guides had honed to a fine art. When we came to cracks that seemed too large to slide a komatik across, they calmly moved big bits of ice into the gaps, creating the smooth surface we needed. Weirdly, this engineering wizardry caused no panic – I didn’t worry for a second about whether the whole process would work. After a week of watching the calm, capable guides handle every challenge our extreme environment presented, and knowing that the rock-solid Tom was in charge, I felt totally safe. No worries – we were in the best possible hands.
Though it was a long trip back, it was punctuated by seeing a rare white gyrfalcon in its nest on a barren cliff. These birds of prey are prized so highly by Saudi Arabian princes that they send bird-nappers to capture and smuggle the falcons out of the Arctic. Though he glimpse we had was brief, it was enough to send Jens, our ornithologist, into fits of joy as he added it to his birding life-list.
After hours of bumping around in the komatiks, we arrived back in Pond Inlet, tired and ready for our denouement dinner – a bitter sweet moment. As we ate, Mike and Tom talked about our time together on the ice – and Mike reminded us of his promise that we would find our magic
We realized that we had each found an individual magic as we shared our most important reflections on our week together. While all were special, my favourite revelation came from Sandra, my Singaporean buddy. Tiny, intrepid and seemingly always ready for anything, Sandra confessed that she’d struggled her whole life with a fear of water, but wanting to snorkel with whales and narwhals, had decided to conquer her phobia. For the past year, Sandra had been taking swimming lessons at a pool, working her way from wading to actually swimming a few strokes. When I remembered helping her wrestle into her dry suit and seeing her hop off the edge of the ice into the water, I was amazed by her courage. No shortage of guts, that girl!
By far the funniest ‘best moment’ belonged to Sandra’s husband, Soo Young, a serious-minded, cautious orthopedic specialist who told us his favourite experience had been…riding in the komatiks. Given that we were all nursing various degrees of stiffness from banging around in those same komatiks on the seven-hour trip home, Soo Young’s comment exploded like a laughter bombshell. Perfect timing – we needed something to keep us from crying as we finished our night and our incredible adventure.
As a travel journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some of the most exciting destinations in the world with fellow travel journalists who are usually adventurous and articulate. But no trip has ever been quite like this one. No destination has challenged and changed me as this did and no other group has ever bonded like ours. Mike was right – we did find magic on the ice and more – we found a passion for the Arctic that will stay with us forever. If that sounds like a dramatic statement, it is…because only words of that strength can describe a life-changing experience.
Day Five - By Liz Fleming
After our incredible day and night (hard to distinguish between the two) yesterday, crawling out of our cozy beds was harder this morning, but luckily, breakfast waited for us. A big feast of eggs and toast and lots of chatter about all that we saw and did the day before and we were soon revved for another trip to the floe edge – on this, the longest day of the year.
Our arrival was punctuated by a group of belugas cavorting just off the edge of the ice, so we hurried to get into our dry suits and kayaks to join them, wriggling into dry suits or climbing into the kayaks. The whales lingered with us for a while, gliding smoothly around the drifting ice chunks, then slowly swam off, leaving us eager for more.
More Arctic Kayaking
With the belugas gone, we turned our cameras on the huge flocks of birds that swooped overhead. Though they were all beautiful, my favourites
by far were the king eiders with their black and white bodies and brilliant, toucan-like beaks. It was incredibly peaceful to simply sit in the sun and watch them soar and dive.
Peaceful sitting in the sun got old pretty quickly for the four kids in the group, however, so Mike and Tom started an impromptu ice soccer game, using a cushion for a ball. Despite my basic lack of both ability and competitive spirit, I found myself playing goal – and getting decked by a
rampaging Mike! I laughed so hard I could barely get up.
Brett, our crazy Aussie pal, had brought a kite and his flip-flops (what else would you pack for an Arctic adventure?) and put them both to use that afternoon. The reds and yellows of the kite were like bright streaks of paint against the white landscape and the blue sky.
Though a duck hybrid dropped by to fascinate Jens the biologist, other wildlife proved elusive for the rest of the afternoon. Still tired from the night before, we were content to head back for dinner at what seemed like the early hour of 8pm. When the sun never stops shining, you lose all track of time.
Back at the camp, Chef Andrew had a great dinner waiting – and Tom and Mike had more treats in store. One of the guides had agreed to tell us the story of his family and their life in the north…speaking in Inuktituk. Billy, another guide, sat beside him to translate what was a harrowing story of devastating hardships. The guide’s grandparents had traveled for two years from a tiny, remote community to make their home in Pond Inlet. The grandfather was sick throughout the trip and unable to hunt, so the grandmother carried the burden of the family alone.
Often going without food, the family lost six of their seven children during the course of the journey – those who remained survived only because the desperate woman managed to kill a walrus.
As we listened, we could hardly believe that anyone could live through such terrible challenges – or that the grandson
whose mother was the only child to survive that epic journey could tell the story in such a matter-of-fact way. We were coming to realize that life in the high Arctic is unlike anything experienced anywhere else.
Day Four – By Liz Fleming
We woke to an unexpectedly damp camp. The sun had come out and was shining brilliantly (yay!) but the sunbeams, in combination with a warm wind, were turning the surface of the ice to melt-water and causing our camp manager Simon grief. Not to worry. This was a man who’s spent a good chunk of his life navigating Antarctica, largely without support – a little water was no match for him.
In no time, Simon had produced an enormous auger and was drilling holes down to the sea below the ice, creating a superb drainage system. He also, quite unexpectedly, created a whole new form of adventure for the guys in the group who all wanted to take a turn with the auger and seemed fascinated by watching the water get sucked down the hole.
With the water situation well in hand, we again loaded the komatiks and headed for the floe edge. We’d only just gotten underway when our convoy came to a halt and the guides all jumped from their snowmobiles. They’d seen polar bear tracks in the snow.
Furiously snapping away with our cameras, we marveled at the huge footprints. The guides scanned the horizon with the binoculars and finally spotted the maker of the prints far in the distance – he was hard to see as he blended so well with the landscape. After a few moments, he seemed satisfied and ambled off.
We hopped back in the komatiks and continued our journey to the floe edge.
Today was our day! The sun was blazing overhead and the water seemed filled with life. Tom, Mike and the guides hauled out the toys for the day – kayaks, paddles, survival suits, drysuits, snorkels, masks – everything we needed to get up close and personal with the whales, narwhals and seals we could see just beyond the edge of the ice.
If you’ve never wriggled into a dry suit, let me tell you, it’s a trick that’s best achieved by removing all your hair and perhaps your ears as well. Because the seal has to be complete to keep the frigid water from rushing in, necks and cuffs are incredibly tight. We took turns torturing one another, stuffing heads and hands and feet through the rubber openings as we fought our way into the suits – and we laughed ourselves sick while we were at it.
My best moment of what proved to be an absolutely incredible day, filled with every kind of Arctic wildlife I’d ever dreamed of seeing came when two enormous, browny-grey narwhals surfaced on either side of my kayak. I raised my paddle and laid it across the gunwales so I wouldn’t disturb them, while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest.
It was a moment I’ll never forget…but only a taste of what was yet to come.
After hours of snorkeling and kayaking in the endless sunshine, we were reluctantly packing up the komatiks to head back to the camp for dinner when suddenly the water erupted. Beluga whales – dozens of them – were breaching. We abandoned the komatiks and raced to the edge of the water where we could see our new playmates arriving – gigantic bowhead whales had joined the belugas. The excitement in the group was off the chart.
Later that night, following a toast to Simon, who’d created an entire small city’s working drainage system in our absence and secured all of our tents, we were still so pumped that going to bed just wasn’t an option. Heading out with Mike and Tom, we hiked our neighbourhood icebergs, leapt like ballet dancers off icy outcrops and took turns photographing one another’s reflections on the lenses of our sunglasses. It was long past 2am when we finally fell asleep in our beds listening to the winds whipping the sides of our tents, still reeling from the glory of our incredibly Arctic day.
Day 2 - By Liz Fleming
Packing up for a week on the polar sea ice is like outfitting an army for a major campaign. It’s an exercise in memory – anything you forget, you’ll have to live without - there’s no dashing out to the corner store for that extra quart of milk.
Fortunately for us, the Arctic Kingdom team proved to be masters of organization. Not only had they made sure we’d brought everything on the list they’d provided, but they also rented us anything we didn’t own (and really…who has a stash of Arctic-style gear hanging in the closet, next to their shorts and t-shirts?) but also, when it was discovered that one part of the group had forgotten their oh-so-vital big warm rubber boots in Ottawa, the Arctic Kingdom team managed to scrounge replacements.
We gathered in the lobby, marveling at the sheer bulk of our gear, then piled mountains of stuff into the hotel’s bus and headed for shore to load the komatiks (sleds pulled by skidoos) for the expedition north to camp. As we met our Inuit guides and helped them to load a seemingly endless collection of bags, boxes and coolers, I started to get a sense of the size of the project – it was like loading a wagon train for an epic journey.
The hauling and lifting worked up a sweat. Decked out in acres of Canada Goose down – coats, pants, mitts – and wool lined, knee-high rubber boots, we were roasting like Thanksgiving turkeys and silently wondering if we’d need it all. After all, the temperature in Pond Inlet that day wasn’t cold – not even close to cold.
Tom Lennartz, Expedition Director (and secret mind reader) laughed at our glowing faces.
“You might be baking right now, but later on, you’re going to be happy you have every bit of that gear.”
By the time we stowed the last bag and box and climbed into the komatiks ourselves, I was zipped and tucked into more clothing than I’d ever worn before, and thought I was ready. Guide Mike Beedell knew I wasn’t. He pulled the strings on my parka hood tight, framing my face in coyote fur so only my ski goggles peered out.
Some hours later, as the komatiks rocked and rolled and the wind whipped across an unbroken sweep of sea ice, I was grateful for those tightened hood strings and glad of every ounce of down that protected me from the cold and wet. In the Arctic, staying warm and dry is key – once you’re chilled, the fun’s over.
I’d never given much thought to cracks in the surface of ice before, but they became a huge entertainment feature of our trip to the camp. Because komatiks rest on long wooden skis, they can glide easily over almost any split. Snowmobiles are another thing. After pushing our komatiks carefully across the big cracks, our guides then backed up, gunned their snowmobile engines and leapt across the open water like Olympic long-jumpers. It was simultaneously terrifying and fascinating – a madly exciting spectator sport.
Pond Inlet - Stunning Landscape
After nearly seven hours of travel across the frozen polar sea, punctuated by the snowmobile stunts and the occasional tea-and-pee breaks, we arrived at camp. Dwarfed by towering icebergs, the collection of white and yellow tents looked impossibly, almost hilariously tiny in the vast sweep of the ice. We were home – and like any good home, ours was warm, and inviting, with the smell of a hot dinner wafting from the dining tent.
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.”
Author: Liz Fleming
Arctic Kingdom expedition leader Thomas Lennartz is in the field and posting photos on our facebook page, check there for more exclusive photo content and periodic updates.
Thomas has this to say about this incredible panoramic photograph -
Sitting at 73°02′11″N 085°09′09″W..(literally at the top of Baffin Island) we are here in Arctic Bay to set out to see the Narwhal and Beluga at the Admiralty Inlet floe edge.
The Inuktitut name for Arctic Bay is Ikpiarjuk which means "the pocket". This name describes the high hills that surround the almost landlocked bay. To the southeast, the flat-topped King George V Mountain dominates the landscape of the hamlet.
This un-edited footage is from an Arctic Kingdom polar bear viewing expedition in the high arctic in May 2010.
Filmed from base camp at one in the morning, we had just finished dinner when one of our Inuit guides spotted the polar bear in the process of stalking and hunting a seal under the ice. The bear was completely unaware of (or didn't care about) our presence only a few hundred meters away. This video really gives a sense of the scale of the arctic; the sweeping landscape, the silence of the surroundings, and the unhurried observation of polar bears in their natural environment made possible by our trip logistics.
Speaking of incredible views, don't miss this other update from our youtube channel, featuring a ballooning adventure over Baffin Island!