|Nunavut including Baffin Island|
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In 1999 the new Canadian province of Nunavut was carved out of what was then the North West Territories. Its an extraordinary place - one of the few places I've been that makes the Australian outback feel crowded. Nunavut covers about a fifth of Canada (so its about the same size as Western Europe) but has a population of some 29,000 people, 85% of whom are Inuit. There are about six trees - pretty much the entire province is tundra. And it is cold: it can get below -50C in winter, though in July the average maximum temperature is a sweltering 8C. Its stunningly beautiful and home to some spectacular mammals.
There is good mammal watching to be had in many parts of Nunavut, but most people interested in the wildlife head to Baffin Island, at least for their first visit. Baffin is the place to see Narwhals, has a stack of Polar Bears, along with just about all of the other species you'd expect from the eastern arctic. And although Baffin is pretty remote, it is somewhat better set up for ecotourism than many other bits of Nunavut. I'd long wanted to visit, and I finally got there in June 2006.
North Baffin Island
Most visitors come between late May and late August. There is 24 hour daylight, a reasonable chance of decent weather (with 'decent' being relative to the rest of the Baffin year, not Hawaii) and this is the only season that you'll have a hope of seeing things like Narwhals. Floe edge trips usually run only from late May through early July (from when the floe edge first opens up, to when the sea ice melts). Cruises run a bit later in the season. Between June and August some local operators offer other trips including kayaking expeditions or boat-based Walrus and Bowhead Whale watching.
Polar Bear and Long-tailed Jaeger
Floe Edge Trip, June 2 - 9, 2006
On Friday June 2 we flew into Pond Inlet from Ottawa, via Iqaluit on a scheduled First Air flight. Pond is a small, apparently happy and globalised community. Snowmachines and satellite dishes brush shoulders with huskies out on the ice, and bear skins stretched out to dry. I heard stories of the local Inuit heading out to hunt Narwhals in the traditional way, and then returning to town to sell the tusks on Ebay.
Much of what happens on Baffin is governed by the ice conditions, and this trip was no exception. Trips generally head to the floe edge east of Pond, about 3 or 4 hours by snowmachine. But in early June 2006 there was no floe edge there. We had to take a 10 hour trip to the northern tip of Baffin, where the satellite pictures showed a more promising floe edge was developing.
And so it was that eighteen of us - 10 paying, 8 paid or working voluntarily - set off at around midday the next day. We were divided between five snowmobiles and the komatics (sleds) they pulled. I can't remember a more scenic, or colder, 10 hours. And words cannot do justice to either the views or the numbness in my fingers.
Snowmachines and komatics
We set up camp below an abandoned research station, pitching our tents on the sea ice. And it was here that we spent the next 5 days and nights. From the cliffs above camp we could see a floe-edge of sorts a few kilometres away, but there was at least 1km's worth of rough ice between us and the ocean; ice too rough for the snow machines to get through. But the floe edge changes quickly.
There was no particular routine over the next four days, with plans changing according to the weather. Because the floe edge, and often the weather, wasn't co-operating, we spent time looking at icebergs, walking along the cliffs, watching bears, and sheltering from force 10 gales, driving rain and snow. But during our last day the floe edge opened up and we managed to find a path through the pack ice that allowed use to get within earshot of the Narwhals. I've listed some details of the mammals we saw in the next section. But first a few general observations on the trip.
I was surprised by the number of bears we saw (at least 10 separate animals, probably more), and quite how dangerous they are considered to be. We had a 24 hour bear-watch running at camp, with loaded rifles strategically positioned. This approach struck me as somewhat over cautious until I better understood how large a 4m long, 800kg carnivore really is when you see one up close. And then I heard some of the local's bear attack stories. They are fast, sneaky and they aren't scared.
Given the number of bears around, the guides were understandably reluctant to let people wander off. That makes perfect sense, though it can also be a bit frustrating - it means that if you are keener than the rest of the group to go off and look for the local fauna you might have to make do with using your binoculars from the campsite (or in my case wander up to the research station above camp every now and again, to risk life, limb and a lecture).
The old research station above camp and listening to Bowhead whales on the hydrophone
My first polar bear was a special moment - an hour that will stay with me forever. And that hour alone made the entire trip worthwhile. The bear patrol in camp had seen a couple of animals during our first night on the ice. The guys hadn't woken me up so I vowed to stay up on day 2 until I'd seen one. At about 1am (it was still daylight of course) one of the Inuit guides - the older of the two Abrahams - wandered up to me and asked me if I wanted to go chasing a polar bear. It was a tough decision, me being near the end of a good book and all, but thirty seconds later I was on the back of a snowmachine, clinging on to Abraham's jacket, my camera and dear life. We headed in the general direction of the bear he'd seen from his vantage point on the ridge above camp. Fifteen minutes, maybe 10km, later we spotted the young male bear he'd seen. The bear stopped periodically to sniff in our general direction, but otherwise he seemed untroubled to see us. In fact his relaxed air, and general inquisitiveness had him wander to within 50m of us. It was around about now that Abraham wondered whether 'inquisitive' might also mean 'hungry', and he announced with considerable urgency, that we should go.
We saw plenty more bears on the trip but this first encounter - just me, Abraham and the bear, above the sea ice and under a midnight sun - was pretty much the perfect arctic moment. Life seldom gets better than that.
The air was very clear. So much so that I had problems working out how far things were away (something the early arctic explorers also noted). This adds a surprising layer of complexity to mammal watching. For instance, I saw a white lump moving on the ice at something like 3 km - must be a Polar Bear! But when I lifted my scope I saw nothing more than a Glaucous Gull. The distant white lump was only 300m away. It really was impossible at times to work out even approximately how far away things were.
When the floe edge finally opened up on the last day my expectations were fulfilled. We had pods of Narwhals moving past every 15 minutes or so, sometime just 100m off the edge of the ice (but 500m from us, because we hadn't found a way to get the snowmachines through to the very edge). Standing on top of ice-locked iceberg, watching pods of Narwhals through the scope, and hearing them blow was another quintessential arctic moment. I wish we'd had the conditions to spend more time doing it (if we had I am pretty sure we'd have had a decent chance of finding Bearded Seals, Walruses and Belugas as well as better views of Bowhead WHales). Some trips have the ice conditions to get to the very edge of the floe, and presumably within tens of metres of passing Narwhals.
Floe edge and Iceberg
An enormous quantity (40 million tonnes) of iron ore has been found on Baffin and plans are underway to mine it. In 2006 this was still at the planning stage but clearly it has some potentially huge effects on the island and the islander's way of life.
And finally, the people working on the expedition were all good at their job and great company. In particular the four Inuit guides - Panuili, the two Abrahams and Jason - were awesome.
In June at least, Ringed seals are the common pinniped, and you'll see them in small groups throughout the pack ice and at the floe edge. Bearded seals tend to stick to the floe edge, where they are present if uncommon (we didn't see any, though we had relatively little time at the floe edge). Harp Seals are quite uncommon on floe edge tours, but are regular later in the summer. Hooded Seals are just plain rare. Walruses prefer shallow water. They are sometimes seen at the floe edge on the northern tip of Baffin (where I went) but not often at the floe edge near Pond Inlet and Bylot Island. In other areas, near Hall's Beach and Igloolik for example, they are quite easy to find.
Ringed Seal and Arctic Hare
Caribous and Wolves are two mammals that are not often seen on either cruises or floe edge trips, but would probably be easy enough to find if you spoke to the locals. We saw only a few Arctic Hares, including one individual that was living in an upended 40 gallon drum on the abandoned air strip above our camp. THey are seriously weird animals, with their bouffant bodies and stick legs, strange gait and penchant for standing up straight on their back legs. Arctic Foxes are not all that common either. At least one person in our group saw one, during the long trip back to Pond Inlet from camp, and we saw tracks near a couple of bear kills. I imagine they are easier to see near sea bird colonies.
I saw many more Polar Bears that I was expecting. We saw them every day, usually more than once. They tend to be more active in the cooler parts of the day and night. While most were distant we got to within 50m of two. We saw mainly single bears, though we also saw at least two mother and cub pairs. From what I can tell, we were in the bear capital of Baffin. Bears are usually seen on the floe edge trips closer to Pond, but they are less common.
I didn't see any Lemmings until I got back to Pond Inlet. They are common in Pond, particularly around the old rubbish dump where both species (Collared and Brown) can be found lurking under bits of old metal and wood. If you can't find them don't despair: simply offer the local kids you meet $10 for whoever catches you the first lemming. A posse of zealous lemming hunters will quickly gather.
There are no Musk Oxen on Baffin. But they are easy to see in other bits of Nunavut - such as Devon Island - and Greenland. (They are easy to see in these places; but these places are not so easy to get to).
The three key arctic cetacean species are Narwhals, Bowhead Whales and Belugas. Narwhals are pretty common all along the floe edge. We saw plenty during what little time we had near the water. Bowhead Whales are less common but they are around and are probably commoner on the northern floe edge (I saw distant views of at least one animal). Belugas were typically commoner on the northern floe edge, than the one near Pond. Having said that, we didn't see any, but the trip the following week to the Pond Inlet floe edge saw heaps.
From the trip reports I have read, many of the cruises around the eastern Arctic usually see all the mammals we saw on the floe edge trip, together with Bearded, Harp and sometimes Hooded Seals, and Walrus. The cruises don't seem as good as floe edge trips for seeing Belugas or Narwhals.
In August, Polar Sea Adventures run 2 week sea kayaking tours with good chances of seeing Narwhals.
Other People's Trip Reports
Ken Balderson's site has some great pictures of Baffin and the floe edge, including the trip I took.