Arctic August: True North Strong and Free
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By John Nightingale, President & CEO, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
We spent two days on the west coast of Greenland, crossed Baffin Bay to Pond Inlet in Nunavut, and sailed through Navy Board Inlet into Lancaster Sound. It’s been warm out the last couple of days with temperatures reaching up to about 20 degrees Celsius. But today, in Lancaster Sound, we experienced a high of six degrees – it finally feels like the Arctic.
Today, we went down the gangway and climbed into our zodiacs – as everyone calls them. Zodiac is a brand of rigid-hulled boats with inflatable pontoons, but today the term is often used to refer to any similar type of boat. They are stable and safe, and universally used to ferry people between ship and shore, and to cruise along shorelines exploring. During our expedition each zodiac is loaded with 10 to 12 guests, a guide or boat driver, and often a naturalist.
Today, we cruised along the shoreline. There was a good reason for not going ashore – a mother polar bear and her yearling cub were sitting right where we wanted to go. We were on the north side of Lancaster Sound, a stretch of the Northwest Passage that is rich in biological productivity — there were lots of birds and marine mammals, like the bearded seals we saw swimming, and the polar bears on the beach.
We were trying to visit Dundas Harbour, an abandoned former RCMP wilderness detachment station on Devon Island. It was set up early in the last century, decommissioned and re-commissioned several times, before being permanently closed and abandoned in the 1950s. It was set up to demonstrate Canadian sovereignty in the area north of the Northwest Passage – which until the ’60s was not universally recognized as being part of Canada. There were about six wooden buildings and out-buildings where RCMP constables lived, and a house for Inuit guides who provided them with food and helped them live in the conditions southerners would consider quite harsh. The abandoned station is part of Canadian history, and the setting starkly beautiful. It felt even starker because of the low cloud cover, the fog, and the cool temperature.
Polar bears are fast, agile predators, and they’re extremely hungry during the summer because there is no ice from which they can catch seals. No human would stand a chance one-on-one with a polar bear – you can’t outrun one. Seeing as the presence of polar bears meant we could not go ashore to explore – we happily cruised the shoreline and took hundreds of photos of the polar bear and her cub from just off-shore. Our drivers and naturalists approached slowly, careful not to startle or scare the bear, and the mother and cub kept feeding on something about 30 feet from the water’s edge.
Once they’d had their fill, and meandered up the hill and out of sight, some of our sharp-eyed guests spotted a narwhal tusk; the bears had been feeding on a narwhal. The discovery set off a discussion about whether or not the bears had killed it. The conclusion our naturalists and Inuit guides came to was that the narwhal must have died and washed up on the shore, where it provided an unexpected summer meal for the bears.
Tomorrow, we expect even colder temperatures and due to a large, low-pressure system coming through, a lot of wind. It will be interesting to see what kind of adjustments the guides have to make for sailing in a storm. The ship will have no problems, but the winds may limit our shore excursions and explorations in the zodiacs. Such is life on a cruise expedition – flexibility is required.
With global temperatures on the rise, we’re racing against time to gain insight about one of the least scientifically understood regions on the planet: the Arctic. This month, scientists from Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre head north to expand upon innovative Arctic research projects started in 2015, in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. This blog series chronicles our scientists’ time and research efforts in the Arctic.