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This summer, two Vancouver Aquarium staffers are visiting communities in Canada’s Arctic. Eric Solomon, director of the Aquarium’s Arctic Programs, and Neil Fisher, Aquarium photographer and videographer, will share their perspectives on people, places and experiences as they learn more about changes taking place in this region. This eighth installment is written by Neil Fisher.

If there is one phrase to describe Pangnirtung, it would have to be: “unbelievably-awesomely-beautiful.” To best describe it visually, you’d have to picture a brand new tub of ice cream, freshly opened, hard as stone, the darkest black chocolate possible, and a few small pieces of walnuts. Now with this fresh tub of ice cream in mind, take a warm spoon and gently drag it across the top of the ice cream. Now you have an ice cream-like trench or fiord – this  is Pangnirtung’s landscape. The fiords of Cumberland Sound stretch long into the rugged snow-capped inland of Baffin Island, creating breathtaking landscapes.

An iceberg in Cumberland Sound, looking as though it’s been bitten.

Pangnirtung sits at the bottom of giant half pipe of a fiord, and is home to roughly 1,000 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet – people who will say hello to everyone while walking alone on the unpaved dirt roads. We stayed in a bed and breakfast in town, and basically lived amongst some of the most caring people I’ve ever met – people who didn’t hesitate to share the history of their family and community.

A surreal combination of ice and fog in Cumberland Sound.

Last Friday, we headed out on the water with a local outfitter, in hopes of spotting a few whales. Initially we had hopes of visiting an area known for beluga whales. However, it was going to take at least four hours to reach the belugas, and we were a little short on time with our flight out of Pangnirtung scheduled for later that afternoon. So instead, we agreed that the belugas would have to wait for out next visit to Pangnirtung, and that bowhead whales would suffice.

The morning on the water was a rather spooky combination of heavy fog and dense ice, where travelling by boat must have resembled the Price is Right Plinko game from up above. The horizon was not at all visible through the heavy fog, but every now and then you’d catch a glimpse of the icy walls towering on either side of the fiord.

A bowhead whale lifts its huge tail flukes clear above the water before diving.

Once in Cumberland Sound, the best way to find a bowhead whale was in complete silence, turning off the boat engine and listening very carefully for the blow of a surfacing bowhead in the distance. Within no time, we heard two or three blows from a surfacing bowhead and were carefully making our way in its direction. Then right at our 12 o’clock, the very large bowhead surfaced, then a second time, and on its third breath it dazzled us with a display of its huge tail flukes before diving in to the cold depths. We waited around for a while, but never did see or hear the bowhead again.

We didn’t make it out of Pangnirtung on Friday, as that spooky fog prevent the plane from arriving. But we did eventually. Next time I write a blog post, it’ll be from Vancouver, where I first started this journey.

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