One of my top three wildlife expeditions has to be to Greenland and Arctic Canada for sightings of polar bears, walrus, arctic fox and hare, snowy owl, bearded, ringed, hooded and harp seals as well as bowhead whales, narwhal (albeit at a distance!) and many birds including a young gyr falcon that settled on a rooftop in Sissimut on the west coast of Greenland!
After an overnight stop in Ottawa, I took a flight onwards to Kangerlussuag on the Sondre Stromfjord on the west coast of Greenland, with a short re-fuelling stop at Iqaluit on Baffin Island! After a tundra walk here, with great views of musk ox, and the distant edge of the Greenland icecap, we boarded the Academik Ioffe, a Russian ice-breaker, for our expedition up the west coast and across the Davis Strait to Baffin Island and onwards on the North West Passage. After sailing down the Sondre Stromfjord, the second longest fjord in the world, we crossed the Arctic Circle at 9.15pm and around midnight, were out into the open waters of the Davis Strait. Our first expedition ashore was at Sissimut, an Inuit settlement where we investigated the small museum, and the local fish and meat market, with recent catches of Spotted Wolf Fish and Polar Cod, as well as whale meat. Sled dogs were chained up throughout the town and dead harp seals were seen on a boat in the harbour. The Inuits are allowed to take 10% of any pod of whales when hunting, which they rely on for the long winter when sea ice prevents the boats going out.
Harp Seal (Pagophilus Groenlandicus)
A young Gyr Falcon (Falco Rusticolus)
We took a pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise around the ice-bergs at the entrance to the Jackobshavn Ice Fjord, which is over 600 metres deep, which originate from Greenland’s second fastest producing glacier located at the head of the fjord, producing 20 million tons of ice every 24 hours! The larger icebergs then run aground, trapped by the old terminal moraine that rises to just 200 metres below the surface of the water, eventually freeing themselves and floating off, drifting out into the West Greenland Current that will carry them north, then west across the top of the Davis Strait and back south down the east side of Baffin Island and into the Labrador current. Eventually the longest surviving icebergs will melt in the Gulf Stream!
Our second shore excursion took us to the small town of Ilulissat on the east shore of Disko Bay. One boat was unloading a catch of ten Long-finned Pilot Whales, a sobering sight for us. The skipper told us that he had encountered a pod of 100 – 150 whales! Locals were buying chunks of whale meat straight from the boat. I spoke with one man who said that eating whale meat kept them warm in their cold climate, so was essential in their diet! The local museum displayed costumes and wildlife of the area with skins of several species of seal. We were told that dogs outnumber inhabitants here, with 4,000 people and 6,000 dogs!
The ice expert on board was studying the ice charts for us to hopefully negotiate the pack ice en route to Isabella Bay on Baffin Island across the Davis Strait. We were lucky that there was a lead through the centre of the pack ice which would save us 400 nautical miles if we were able to get through! We set off for the pack ice in heavy mist through a dramatic and icy wilderness of thick, multi-year ice floes! We approached to within a couple of hundred metres and then turned north to skirt the edge of this ice barrier. It wasn’t long before the shout went up – POLAR BEAR!! The bear was standing on the edge of the pack ice, but soon launched itself into the water and swam directly towards us! May be he could smell lunch cooking! Before long it was 50 metres or so from us, pausing to peer at us over a small bergy bit as it approached! The second officer skilfully kept the ship in perfect position for us to take the perfect photo with the sun over our shoulders! Magical!!The next morning, we awoke to find the ship still threading its way through the loose pack ice of the central Davis Strait. The latest ice chart, derived from satellite imagery, had showed thick ice to the north and south and a relatively clear channel a few miles wide in between! We were heading for Baffin Island and our hoped for rendez-vous with Bowhead whales! In all during this crossing, and at Baffin island, we saw 37 polar bears!!
Polar Bear (Ursus Maritimus)
As we approached Isabella Bay, a distant Bowhead Whale was sighted, continually lob tailing, raising its tail high in the air and thwacking the water for 15 minutes or more! We sailed north along the east coast of Baffin Island with spectacular scenery, with a sighting of 10 – 12 Bowheads , logging along the ice edge and even within the ice itself! The Deck 7 chart room was now re-named The Bowhead Club for our small group of whale-watchers on board! The Captain asked if he could join and was told that he was already an Honorary Member!! We entered Scott Inlet and Gibb Fjord to be greeted with spectacular scenery and high cliffs on both sides of the ship and made our first shore excursion into Polar Bear country!
Dramatic lenticular clouds formed high over the nearby snow-capped peaks as we wandered the tundra, before making our way back to the beach to cruise the fjord where we saw a female polar bear with her two cubs high along the cliffs, as well as Black Guillemot and King Eider!
Early morning began with the ship approaching Cape Graham Moore at the eastern end of Pond Inlet where we visited the bird cliffs of Bylot Island and took to the calm waters off the mouth of Pond Inlet to look for Narwhals! As we approached several hunters were out on the water in their power boats, occasionally stopping to shoot at seals. On arrival at Pond Inlet, lots of Inuit children came down to the shore trying to clamber into our boats with a warm welcome.After a quick look around the settlement including local stores where books and souvenirs could be bought, a call came through our walkie talkies to say that two zodiacs were going to return to the area where sightings of Narwhals blowing had been seen, some 13 miles away, so of course, I joined them, but they were elusive! We did have a great sighting of an Arctic Hare just above the shoreline!
Back on board, we sailed the mirror calm seas between Bylot Island and the east coast of Baffin Island towards Navy Board Inlet and Lancaster Sound. I was mesmerised by the sea patterns here!
After a zodiac trip across Navy Board Inlet with distant views of arching backs and bulbous heads of Narwhals, and large numbers of harp seals and seabirds in the water, we headed off to Dundas Harbour on the south side of Devon Island. A polar bear waiting our arrival on the island scuppered any plans for a trip ashore. Our expedition leader had already told us that on his most recent visit here just last week, he had had to run two miles to avoid a confrontation with a bear that swam ashore while he was guarding the shore party! The story reminded us why we had gun bearers to accompany us on every shore excursion, primarily for our safety, but for the safety of the bears too! We cruised around the harbour before heading west a short distance to Croker Bay. The Arctic islands had been transferred from Britain to Canada in 1880, but it was not until 1897 that Canada took an active interest in exerting its sovereignty, when a series of Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts were set up in the High Arctic. The RCMP at Dundas Harbour was established in 1924 but over the years fierce gales caused the buildings and boats to be destroyed and by 1951 the post was closed down. The derelict buildings and remote landscape gave us a small insight into how bleak life must have been there.
The superb view that greeted us at Croker Harbour was filled with a two mile wide tidewater glacier not more than half a mile away! Zodiacs were quickly put in the water when one of our group saw walrus hauled out on a piece of ice floating close to the glacier. As nine zodiacs and several kayakers cruised slowly towards them the glacier calved a small iceberg and we all looked over our shoulders! A couple of polar bears were also seen swimming along the base of the glacier! As the zodiacs got closer, engines were cut and a hushed flotilla formed so as not to disturb them! In near silence we drifted slowly past the Walrus, and the two blobs became three as a walrus pup appeared wedged between the two adults! Superb views were had by everyone until the pup wriggled so much that one of the adults turned over, the floe lurched and all three slid off into the water! At that point they came swimming around the zodiacs curious to people watch, but we slipped away to leave them in peace!
Walrus (Odobenus Rosmarus)
Early next morning found us in calm waters approaching Beechey Island, with its cliffs moodily emerging from the mist! Here on a lonely beach far from civilisation lay the graves of three members of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845 in search of the North West Passage. The expedition was eventually forced to abandon their two ships, The Erebus and Terror, and it is believed that all remaining members of the party perished while attempting to walk back to safety. The barren beach is marked with commemorative plaques that have replaced the original ones that were removed for safekeeping from looters! The remains of the hut erected in case the men got back were still there with tins and bottles of provisions lying around. An eerie place now and so bleak!
The next morning we awoke with the Ioffe anchored near to the dock at Nanisivik and after a final meeting in the Bowhead Club, and a group photo, we began our disembarkation for the transfer to the airport there, our journey home began with a short re-fuelling stop at Iqaluit and onward to Ottawa, and an overnight stay. After an early breakfast we headed out to Gatineau Park with a variety of woodland species including two American Bitterns standing out in the open! A great finale to one of the most memorable trips!
The Bittern. (Botaurus stellaris).
PS. Billy Connolly (a Scottish comedian) took the same passage for a television series on the same ship, the Akademic Ioffe, a few years after my trip!