This is the fourth blog installment about my trip through the Northwest Passage this summer with One Ocean Expeditions, on the Akademik Surgey Vavilov.
I’ll start by saying that we saw everything we hoped for and more. It was incredible. The Arctic can seem so empty, especially the high and desolate Arctic, but I’ve spent enough time there to realize that there are lots of animals too. They can exist in vast numbers, like the caribou herds, or the great nesting colonies of kittiwakes and murres that I mentioned in the last post. And last year we saw hundreds of Narwhal go by one morning, while we were eating breakfast on northern Baffin Island. There is a vast amount of seemingly empty space, but in the space, it’s hard for anything to really hide.
Well, the sled dogs, while not exactly tame, aren’t really wild. But I thought you’d enjoy this great photo taken by Ken Burton, one of the historians on the trip, and the director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Ken generously shared some of his great photos with me and he doesn’t mind me posting them here. (One second thought, maybe they are wild – why is there one shoe in front of them? What happened to the owner of that shoe?)
We were able to get quite close to this lone muskox on Devon Island. Muskoxen are usually found in a herd, and defend themselves by forming a circle, horns facing outward. This fellow, all alone, was probably an older male, cast out from the herd, and not too likely to survive his next encounter with wolves. Because they are used to forming a huddle, this fellow let us walk quite close to him before he ambled away. I was thrilled to see him as I’ve always wanted to see a muskox. I wasn’t sure they were real. Such a prehistoric looking creature. One can only begin to imagine what it’s like to be a muskox.
While in Conningham Bay, amidst a plethora of polar bears, and just after we’d seen a large pod of beluga whales in a small bay, we had a chance to get a good and close look at this beautiful snowy owl. The snowy owl is one of my favorite birds. This fellow seemed to be having a slow morning basking in the sun and wasn’t bothered by us at all.
(As well as the pod of belugas, we also saw some narwhal and a minke whale on the trip. Sadly, I’ve no photos of them for you.)
We saw many polar bears on the trip – I think about a dozen. Of course I had hoped we might see a bear or two, especially from the safe distance of a ship or zodiac. (Unlike last year on my kayak trip, when I really DID NOT want to see a polar bear!) Our first sighting was while crossing massive Baffin Bay – we saw a bear way out at sea on a massive collection of sea ice. We also saw the mother and cub and the swimming bears in Bellot Strait. But the best day was near the end of the voyage, when we came upon a number of bears feeding on some beluga whale carcasses on the shore. (The carcasses were probably killed by local hunters, harvesting the fat, or muktuk, an Inuit delicacy.) Because they were full, the big males fed side by side without animosity, and we saw 2 and 3 at a time. They weren’t bothered by us either, and we had a long look at them, several bears spread out over several miles of shoreline. The big males weight about 1200 pounds, and looked powerful and healthy, with thick, rich coats. What a rare privilege, to see a polar bear in the wild. I don’t think I could see one in a zoo without my heart sinking, knowing what that bear is missing.
According to Aaron, the expedition leader, who has spent years in the Arctic, polar bears can fall from the sky and spring from the ground. In other words, they can be very difficult to see. I had a sense of that when one swam along the shore, amongst the ice floating there. Looking for all the world like ice. For that reason, we never went to shore without our safety crew.
Although they are always prepared, and have in the past had to leave beaches quickly to avoid bear encounters, I’m happy to report they have never had to shoot a bear. The team spent a long time checking out the sites before we landed – looking in every nook and cranny.
If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I was very impressed with the ethics of the One Ocean Expedition crew. Because I was on the ship as the ship doctor, I was treated as part of the crew, and had a great behind the scenes look at the logistics of running such an expedition. It was really fun to be part of it all, and to get to know the amazing staff. (I had my own uniform and my own radio! Sadly, I didn’t get to drive the zodiac.) They practice the best kind of wilderness travel, showing respect for the artifacts, the local people, the wilderness, and the animals we encountered. They were careful not to stress the animals or cause a close encounter with them. We left only foot prints. I would highly recommend them to anyone considering an Arctic or Antarctic cruise, and I definitely hope to be traveling with them again. Thanks so much for the amazing experience One Ocean.