Wildlife of the Baffin Island, Lancaster Sound and the High Arctic.
Franklin, Frobisher, Amundsen, Scott and even the great Shackleton all made the same basic error. They didn’t travel on the Peregrine Mariner while exploring the Polar regions. I joined the Peregrine Mariner last year to explore Baffin Island, the High Arctic and part of the coast of Greenland.I boarded the Peregrine Mariner, an ice rated Russian built polar ship in Resolute Bay, the world’s most northerly commercial airport. Even the flight in is spectacular, but it is nothing in comparison with what we will see over the next 2 weeks. Even before I boarded the ship I saw some Ivory gulls (Populations are in serious decline, read the report.).
I went to the frozen north for some serious and eclectic wildlife watching, but, to my surprise, one of the most memorable experiences was an utterly absorbing and moving history lesson, on Beechey Island where the legendary Franklin expedition spent a winter. Although most of his crew survived their first winter, three of the crew are buried here and it was an autopsy carried out in the 1980s on these bodies that provided the vital clues to the fate of the expedition. The revolutionary new technology of the time, tin cans, had lead solder to seal them, and lead poisoning appears to have been a key factor behind the demise of the expedition. We visited the graves of the three unfortunates, and what a poignant moment. Set amidst barren windswept rocks, their only consolation must be that they didn’t have to endure the slow lingering death and further abject misery that the rest of the expedition members suffered.
Now for the meat of the expedition. Personally, I am more fascinated by mammals than birds, and although nothing can compare with the Serengeti, this area comes the closest to a marine version. There are never any guarantees, but the area we explored holds the largest populations in the world of many of these spectacular mammals.
Beluga whales are odd. For aficionados of British rock bands, imagine a 12 foot tall, albino, Buster Blood Vessel floating around and ice cold swimming pool. Belugas have no dorsal fin, remarkably loose fitting skin and a very rounded shape. As they loll around near the surface, you can clearly see their skin wobbling like a huge jelly. We saw several groups, or pods, of beluga, they are very sociable mammals that live in groups with as many as 30 individuals. It is thought that there are as many as 20,000 beluga in this area and the sounds they make have led them to be named the ‘canaries of the sea’.
I just hadn’t realised how big these things are. They can weigh up to a ton and be 10 feet long (Pacific walrus are even bigger). They are also sociable animals and can be seen in large groups on suitable rocks and ice-flows. Walrus numbers here are now recovering after they were heavily hunted in the past. If you get the chance, just watch a group walrus for a while. It is a never ending jostle of huge bodies, often breaking out in skirmishes and always interspersed with a variety of whistles, rumbles, knocks and grunts.
The extraordinary narwhal also live in the area in large numbers, in fact it is accepted that this is the largest population of narwhal in the world. Their extraordinary long spiral tusk, which can grow up to three metres long, is still not fully understood. The tusk is surely one of the most beautiful pieces of natural design in the natural world, but just how much more beautiful is it when it is still attached to a narwhal, and the narwhal is swimming between icebergs in the extraordinary fjords of Baffin Island and western Greenland.
We also saw several Bowhead whales. I have been lucky to see whales in many parts of the world, including the extraordinary Valdes Peninsula (though I have never seen a Blue whale), and these huge whales have the longest baleen of any whale in their oversized heads. Caribou and Musk Ox can also be found, though we only caught a few distant glimpses.
Ringed and Bearded seals are both common in the area, though they always have a nervous look, and that can only be brought about by the presence of Polar Bears. For many of my shipmates, the Polar bear was what they had come to see. They enjoyed the rest, but the bears were their ultimate goal. The world’s largest land predator is in decline, probably due to global warming and associated effects, but they can still be seen reasonably regularly on the edge of the sea ice as well as prowling around rocks and small islands or resting on smaller ice floes.
The vast sea cliffs of Prince Leopold Island would be spectacular even if there were no birds at all. Towering 900 feet above the sea, they are magnified by the fact that we were bobbing around in a seemingly tiny Zodiac amongst the ice floes. However throw in vast numbers of guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and Brünnich’s guillemots, and it makes for a truly extraordinary few hours. And for once, I didn’t even take a photo, how could I capture it? I just sat back with my binoculars and enjoyed the scene. We used the Zodiacs many times over the next week or so, as even though the Peregrine Mariner is a small ship (just 100 passengers plus crew) and can get into many places where most even medium sized ships can’t, the Zodiacs ferried us to inlets, beaches, sea cliffs and icebergs. Over the nest week, at various times during visits to Coubourg Island, Pond inlet and the coast of Greenland, as well as while at sea and perched on icebergs, we saw huge numbers of those same birds, as well as Snow buntings, Glaucous gulls, Snow goose, Arctic terns, red-throated diver and Purple sandpipers (one couple got very excited about these).
Even when on board, I learned a lot from the on board experts about the wildlife, history and people of the area. Lectures are scheduled for those times when we were cruising the open sea, and organised when the weather wasn’t what we wanted.
The scenery is quite extraordinary. Barren islands, icebergs, sea cliffs, sea ice and rugged promontories and the clearest, crispest light I have ever seen make for a lot of photography. I am told it is not as spectacular or even on the same scale as the Antarctic, (though it is much more accessible) which, if true, means I know where I am going next Christmas.
J Streak travelled with Peregrine Adventures to the High Arctic. Click here to see details of this years trips.
Two cruises run in 2007, starting from Resolute Bay on the 1st and 12th of August. Prices start from £2090, and the charter flight from Ottawa costs £725.