Vancouver Aquarium associate researcher Dr. Valeria Vergara is a behavioural ecologist now spending the summer in the Arctic. Based at Arctic Watch on Somerset Island, Dr. Vergara is using her knowledge about beluga calls, gained by studying beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium, to learn more about wild Arctic populations, and how their melting environment is affecting them. The study is funded by the Vancouver Aquarium and supported by the Arctic Watch Beluga Foundation.
At last the day arrived when I would fly from Yellowknife, to Nunavut’s High Arctic to begin the Cunningham Inlet beluga research project that had been exhaustively planned for months. Along with 20 Arctic Watch Lodge clients keen to experience a one-week long Arctic immersion, I climbed eagerly into a small charter plane that flew for hours over vast, frozen land to Cunningham Inlet, on Somerset Island.
The immensity of the unpopulated land we were flying over, hour after hour, took my breath away. We landed on a wide rocky plane in the middle of nowhere, and we could see the little white yurts of the Arctic Watch Lodge in the distance. This is Canada’s most northerly lodge, opened in 2000 by Richard Weber, the renowned polar adventurer who has made more successful treks to the Pole than anyone in history, and JoséeAuclair, a seasoned Arctic explorer and leader of the two all-women trek expeditions to the North Pole (2001) and South Pole (2007). Their oldest son, Tessum Weber (the youngest person to have reached the North Pole; “It must run in the family,” he told me a moment ago), and Richard greeted us at the rugged runway, guided us to two large yellow rafts at the edge of the river and paddled us all across to the beautiful main yurt of the lodge. Joséeand the Arctic Watch staff awaited us with coffee, tea and biscuits, followed by a spectacular dinner. This was, hands down, the fanciest start to a research project in all my years as a field biologist.
After dinner, as Josée drove me across the land on an all-terrain gator to the “research cliff” which overlooks the beluga nursery grounds in Cunningham Inlet, I saw the red and white yurt destined to become my home and research base for the next five weeks. It sits about 50 metres back from the old research hut, which was used in the 80’s and 90’s by other researches and is perched at the edge of the cliff. In this vast, wild landscape, the little wood hut and my red and white yurt are the only two human-made structures that can be seen.
Nansen is Richard and Josée’s youngest son, a superb photographer (www.nansenweber.com) in charge of the Cunningham Inlet beluga photo-identification project, supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant. I suspect that his ID pictures will be a big asset to this project . . . when the belugas arrive, that is! Usually by this time of the year, the belugas have begun to come around the peninsula into the shallow inlet with their young calves. For the rest of July and until early August, up to 2,000 whales come through the inlet to molt, nurse their young, and socialize. But the summer is two weeks late this year, and the Northwest Passage and Cunningham inlet are still frozen.
The whales are probably waiting in areas of open water until the ice recedes enough to allow their passage. There is a humorous irony in the fact that this beluga study, related to global warming, is late starting because it is too cold. And yet, the summer is beginning to show. The little purple saxifrage flowers are in full bloom, dotting the grey rocky landscape with splashes of colour. Every day the sun feels a little warmer, more patches of open water can be seen in the inlet, the snow is melting and the rivers and creeks are beginning to flood the area. When summer starts, I am told, the change is surprisingly fast. The belugas might arrive as soon as next week.
In the meantime, I keep busy. I’m using this “beluga-less” window of time to get to know the area, plan the research setup, fine-tune my methodology, give talks to Arctic Watch clients, and write this blog, which I’m finishing as I sit here by my yurt immersed in this blissful silence under the midnight sun. I expected some light at midnight, but I did not expect the sheer luminosity of the land; the sun, although low on the horizon, still warms my face.
“Warm,” however, is relative. Pielou explains in his naturalist guide to the arctic that “In the summer the temperature varies on a 24 hourly basis, and even in the midnight sun period when it never sets, the sun is higher when it is to the south, at ‘midday’, than when it is to the north, at ‘midnight’, and the temperatures rise and fall accordingly.” Very true! The biting cold is so intense tonight that I have trouble typing this with my numb hands. I have put a hot water bottle inside my double sleeping bag for the past couple of nights, which has proven essential. But it is all part of the adventure. As I write, an Arctic hare grazes on the purple saxifrage near my yurt, unconcerned about me. I marvel at this creature, surviving in this remote, unforgiving land. This intimacy with nature, the moments of silence and solitude, and even experiencing the extreme weather, are just some of the reasons why I continue to find fieldwork the most rewarding part of my job.