Monday, June 10, 2013, On the Ice at 72° 39’ N, 75° 51’ W

At the edge of the floe
Where We Are Today
On the Ice at the Edge of Baffin Bay

Narwhal At the edge of the floe
And What We Are Seeing
This was the day we’ve been waiting for!

While most of us were still in the dining tent feasting on Eggs Benedict this morning, Jenny radioed from the floe edge (we’ve gone high tech) that she was seeing a Narwhal approaching. We all ran out, me not stopping to put on my jacket this time, Jo carrying her plate.

And the Narwhal parade began! It was glorious. We saw at least thirty of them on the surface (which means there were many more underwater). They came in ones and twos, all traveling from our right to our left across the inlet. First were adult females, beautiful in their gray-mottled white, and then juveniles, who match the grey of the water. It lasted for more than three hours. Many were close enough that we could hear them breathing. The water was still, so seeing conditions were very good. The sea was almost ice-free as far as we could see. The mountains were looking their best. We were all in Heaven. And nobody thought of going back inside to finish breakfast.

Eating breakfast at the floe edge
Jo, Emma, Jenny, and Mary
(Click on images to enlarge)
One of the very best parts of it was that even when there were no Narwhals in sight, we could hear their echolocation clicks on the hydrophone. I found that totally enchanting. The songs of the Bearded Seals and the moans of the Bowhead Whales still filled our earphones, but the Narwhals’ clicks were very clear. I recommend you watch and listen to the short video at the bottom of this (somewhat slow) page to hear both their clicks and the sound of their breathing (as well as some of their vocalizations). You may note that the impression a swimming Narwhal gives can be of a huge sea serpent; this is because they have no dorsal fins, just a slight dorsal ridge. Fins would impede their travel under the ice. (Their worst predators, the Orcas, aren’t able to get at them until the sea ice melts, because of their huge dorsal fins.)
The Narwhals rose from under the water very quietly, so hearing the breathing was sometimes the first thing that alerted us to the presence of another Narwhal. It was guaranteed to stop all conversation. It was a special treat when Narwhals that had been hunting under our floe came up right at the edge and spent a minute or two there breathing deeply. (Those seemed to be mostly the younger animals; their elders are probably more wary.) When a Narwhal was ready to dive again, its head and the front portion of its body rose somewhat higher in the water and then went down, the arched back following the head in a graceful rolling motion. If we were lucky, the tail fluke came entirely out of the water just at the last. Narwhals seem never to breach (leap out of the water). We often saw them “logging”, lying quietly just below the surface to catch a few minutes of sleep.

The camera shutters around me sounded like machine-guns, as the photographers rejoiced in capturing wonderful images.

After I’d had time really to savor the experience of seeing Narwhals, I tried my hand, too. This was my best photo. (The Narwhal is swimming to the left. I would like to think that there is a hint of a tusk there, but it is probably just the water being ruffled.)

Narwhal under golden sky
Narwhal and golden sky
Ryan managed to get a lovely fluke shot and a shot of a mother and calf swimming side-by-side:
Narwhal fluke
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Narwhal mother and calf
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Also during the morning, we discovered that two Ruddy Turnstones had invited themselves into camp and were pattering about looking for food, apparently with no fear of either people or dogs. They seemed extremely pleased when they discovered the place where Philip had been cutting up some Atlantic Char. A few of us went back to the camp to photograph them during a Narwhal lull, but then they seemed to want more attention, so came out to us on the floe edge. They may soon become the most photographed Ruddy Turnstones ever to live.
Turnstones in camp
Ruddy Turnstones in camp
(Note lashed construction of qamutiq)
Turnstones on char
Turnstones discovering the char
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Turnstone on ice
My best Turnstone-on-the-ice snap
Turnstone photography
Serious Turnstone photography
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
We also have a passerine here (in addition to the occasional Raven scavenging on the dogs’ food). We’ve been hearing an American Pipit singing above the camp but hadn’t been able to see it until it flew right between Jenny and me this morning, startling us both. (We have seen no Snow Buntings since we left Pond Inlet.)

Things had quieted by lunch time, so most of us went in for lunch. As I was walking to camp, Sam pointed out a Bowhead Whale in the distance. He was seeing it with his bare eyes. I could just make it out with my binocular. I didn’t get a great look, but there was no question what it was. (For spectacular looks at Bowhead Whales, see the 1974 National Film Board of Canada documentary In Search of the Bowhead Whale.)

While most of us were eating our nice chicken soup and cheese biscuits, Emma and Sam remained at the floe edge on hydrophone watch and were startled to hear a loud bang through their headphones, which was followed by a muffled munching sound. They hadn’t heard anything like it before but both concluded that something had hit the microphone. Just then, a Walrus popped up from under the ice. Mark tried to radio the dining tent, but one of the radios had a dead battery. The Walrus was already gone by the time the rest of us heard about it, so we just kept eating. (I don’t know how Philip and Katie deal with preparing all this wonderful food knowing that we may all get up in the middle of a meal and leave it to be thrown away, or, worse, refuse to come in to eat it at all, but they are always cheerful.)

We returned to the floe edge after lunch. In between Narwhals, I had a pleasant chat with Jo, who lives in London and is a stage manager. She was full of amusing tales about her work, and it was fun to share our views of British theatre.

American Pipit
American (Buff-bellied) Pipit
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Mary at the iceberg
Mary at the iceberg
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
In the afternoon, Elaine and Ryan and Mary accompanied the men to the iceberg from which our drinking water is fetched and got to sample the fresh meltwater and the brilliant views from on top.
Later in the afternoon, a terrific wind came up (strong enough to knock people’s tripods over and blow the little blue chairs around). It was so unpleasant that everybody gave up on the Narwhal watch except Jo, who sturdily stayed on the floe edge as our lookout.

I curled up under my warm comforter and took a much-needed nap. (With the sun never setting here, we have a tendency not to sleep enough.) I finally woke around 7pm and went to the dining tent, where I enjoyed a pleasant pasta dinner while chatting with Jo and Mark.

Jo on the blustery edge
Jo braving the cold
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
After dinner, one of the older Inuit guides, Sheatie Tagak, told us a bit of his life story. He spoke in Inuktitut, and Sam Omik translated for him. (Here is a short CBC clip of Sheatie speaking Inuktitut.) He started by telling us that his family lived out on the land when he was a child, but then the government encouraged the Inuit to move into towns and they went to live in Pond Inlet. For twenty-five years now, he has had a successful guiding business, Tagak Outfitting Services.

In response to a question, Sheatie said that he prefers modern life. Schools and cellphones and snowmobiles have made things better for the Inuit. When Sam answered the same question, however, he was less sanguine, lamenting the social changes that have come with modernization. Tom added that modern communications have made a big difference. When Arctic Kingdom began its business, they communicated with the guides by sending a FAX to the only FAX machine in Pond Inlet, knowing that they wouldn’t get a response back and just hoping the message got delivered. “Now, all these guys are on Facebook.”

Sheatie went on to tell us two stories of his younger days. The first was about the time he was out hunting and had gone to sleep in his tent. He woke suddenly when a Polar Bear slashed the tent open, attracted by the smell of the char Sheatie had caught and had in the tent with him. Sheatie pulled the two sides of the rip together but couldn’t reach his gun, so he instead grabbed his kerosene lantern. When the bear broke through again, he splashed kerosene on its face and it ran away.

Another time, Sheatie and his hunting buddy were out on the ice when it broke up. They jumped from floe to floe to try to get closer to land, but couldn’t make it all the way. They knew which direction the floe would travel, so they had a good idea of where they were when they were finally able to get to land. (This was in January, so they were in darkness the whole time.) They were trying to reach a friend’s cabin but Sheatie’s buddy became too cold to move. They were wearing caribou pants, so their legs were fine, but they were wearing commercial parkas, rather than caribou, so their chests and arms became very cold. When Search and Rescue finally found them after eleven days, they had to cut Sheatie’s frozen parka off to replace it with a caribou parka to warm him up while they transported him back to Pond Inlet by snowmobile. He said that he was proud to be alive thanks to S&R. (Nowadays, hunters going out on the ice can get a radio from S&R to take with them.)

Sheatie Tagak
Sheatie Tagak
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
After Sheatie finished speaking, we all went out to the floe edge and were happy to find that the wind had died down some. The water was still rough, however, so the seeing wasn’t good. We all agreed we’d make an early night of it. Kate and I fell into bed early (i.e., before midnight).