Tuesday, June 11, 2013, On the Ice at 72° 39’ N, 75° 51’ W

Male Narwhal
What We Are Seeing Today
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
The wind was still blowing fiercely when we woke this morning. Kate turned on the heater and we went back to sleep for half an hour.

Most of the group had finally gathered around the stove in the dining tent by around 8, but the wind was still howling outside. Katie had promised us Philip’s special French toast for breakfast at 9. (Mark had it last week and has been urging a repeat ever since.) There came a lull in the wind and we speculated as to whether it was going to rise again (happily it didn’t).

Just then, Mark burst in and called out, “Tusks!” He’d ventured out to the floe edge and had spotted Narwhal tusks in the water nearby. That cleared the tent out immediately.

Dining tent
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
(Click on images to enlarge)
The morning turned out to be even better than yesterday. The water was fairly smooth, which really helps with the seeing. We could see no pack ice at all, clear to the horizon. A light snow was falling but it didn’t obstruct our view. There was a continual stream of Narwhals, at least seventy by our count, and we had at least half a dozen males whose tusks came up out of the water. We kept seeing mostly-white adults swimming alongside gunmetal gray juveniles. When the light-colored adults swam just below the surface, they glowed turquoise through the water.

We all felt we’d truly seen Narwhals at last. I found that there were tears in my eyes from the joy of it and from my sadness that Lee wasn’t here sharing it with me.

Tusked Narwhal
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Diving Narwhal
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Narwhal below the surface
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Philip and Katie finally gave up on our coming back to the dining tent and brought us the wonderful breakfast on the ice around 10. Philip’s French toast is really more like a bread pudding and has apricots in it. I can see why Mark said he should make it every day.
Philip’s French toast Mary and Emma
Mary and Emma
And then we had a visit from a young Walrus. The underwater portion of our floe extends out a few feet beyond the surface portion, which made a good place for the Walrus to haul itself out on. It was doing that (right in front of Ryan) when it noticed all the strange creatures standing about and slipped back into the water. But it was so curious that it kept bobbing up along the edge to get another peek at us. It got well photographed before it went away still wearing a quizzical expression.
Walrus hauling out
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Curious Walrus
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)

Photographing the Turnstones
Advanced Turnstone Photography
Lunch came at a pause in the Narwhal parade in mid-afternoon, so we managed to make our way into the tent for nice egg salad sandwiches. After lunch, we returned to the floe edge and continued to get a few Narwhals.

In between whales, we all photographed the two Ruddy Turnstones, who came to the edge again to pose for us. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to get the perfect photo of a Turnstone reflected in the meltwater atop the floe. After watching one of the Turnstones bathing, I concluded that we should have been making videos.

Turnstone reflecting
Turnstones reflecting
(Photo courtesy of Emma Southall)
Turnstone bathing
Turnstone bathing
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Garrett)
As the day wore on, the sea grew rough and the tide was obviously high, which resulted in seawater flooding over the edge onto the floe. Some of it froze immediately into frothy ice, but the rest flowed toward camp. By mid-afternoon we had a considerable lake, so the guys drilled half a dozen more holes to drain the water away, which works amazingly well. It’s interesting that several people have mentioned their concern, or at least consciousness, that we are camped out over deep ocean. It all seems so stable that I never think about it. Drilling through the ice
American Golden-Plover
American Golden-Plover
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
The birding was grand all day. The eider parades continued and there were always murres bobbing up from under the ice or flying past in squadrons. We also enjoyed a low flyover of a Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua).

Margaret pointed out a plover on the ice far away that I dismissed as one of the Turnstones until she persuaded me to look through her more powerful binocular. It was clearly either an American Golden-Plover or a Black-bellied Plover. I struggled to see whether the bottom part of the belly was white, which would make it a Black-bellied (these names don’t have to make sense). Ryan solved the problem with a clear photo, bless him — American Golden-Plover. (To add to the confusion, the British name for the Black-bellied Plover is Grey Plover, because it is seldom seen in breeding plumage there.)

Sam throwing food to gulls
Sam feeding gulls
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
And then when things grew quiet, Mark asked Sam to throw a few pieces of seal blubber into the water at the floe edge. That immediately brought us a swarm of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, Northern Fulmars, and Thayer’s Gulls (see Jenny Varley’s elegant photo). While the birds battled with one another over this treat, I had the pleasure of watching and listening as Emma, who has been working hard at bird identification, readily distinguished them all and clearly rejoiced in being able to do so. When the blubber was gone, we tried throwing some pieces of bread out onto the water, but these Arctic birds are real carnivores and weren’t interested.
The big event of the afternoon was the “Swim with the Narwhals”. I felt not the least temptation to struggle into a dry suit and plunge into Baffin Bay. The temperature was around freezing, snow was falling lightly, and there were bits of ice floating in the water. Nevertheless, half a dozen of my companions went in and all said afterward that they were delighted they’d done so. Though there were Narwhals around, none of them came over to investigate the snorkelers, as they are known sometimes to do. Tom has told us that he has several times had the experience of a Narwhal swimming under him and turning upside down to get a better look up at him.
Swimmers entering water
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Swimmers in water
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Kate in snorkel gear
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Kate told me afterward that the water appeared to be blue and was amazingly clear, so clear that it was difficult to judge distances. She could see some small jellyfishes and some seaweed but not much else. It must be difficult for the seals to find fish to eat in such barren water. (The Narwhals are bottom feeders and particularly enjoy mollusks.)

By the time the swimmers came out, the weather had closed in and we’d lost our view of the beautiful mountains all around us. We continued to watch for Narwhals until it was time for dinner.

Dinner started with air-dried Atlantic Char of which Philip was very proud, never having made it before.

Atlantic Char air drying
Atlantic Char air drying a few days ago
(Photo courtesy of Emma Southall)
The main course was a Thai curry with large prawns, really delicious. As this was our last dinner on the floe edge (sigh), Mark and the Arctic Kingdom staff had a surprise for us after dinner, non-alcoholic champagne. We stayed in the dining tent for a while afterwards to share our best memories of the trip. For me, it was the Narwhals, of course, and especially the thrill of hearing their echolocation clicks on the hydrophone before they arrived.
Arctic Kingdom staff
Philip, Katie, Mark, Tom, Angus, Kieran, and Steve
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Sugar on the Snow We adjourned to the floe edge to watch for whales and were delighted when Philip and Katie came out to make Sugar on the Snow for us. They’d reduced some good Canadian maple syrup, which Philip poured hot onto the snow while Katie sprinkled it with sea salt. We were given little wooden sticks to use to dig it up. It was something I’d heard about but never tried, and it was really delicious. I ate far more than my share.

Sugar on the Snow
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)

Sky at 9pm
The sky at 9pm

I stayed out long enough to photograph the dramatic sky as the Sun moved to the south of us, but there didn’t seem to be much whale activity and I was pooped, so I left to go to our tent around 9:30 to get organized for our departure tomorrow and get to bed early.

When Kate came in at 11, she told me there’d been a bunch more Narwhals, tusked males and females with young, all going in the “wrong” direction. Elaine and Ryan got this lovely photo of a female and a calf swimming side by side right after I left (but I did really need the sleep).

Narwhal adult and calf swimming
(Photo courtesy of Elaine and Ryan)
Shortly after midnight, when most of us were sound asleep in our tents, a Polar Bear was spotted near the floe edge. Sam got a wonderful series of photographs as the bear approached the CBC camp, attracted by the food that had been put out for his father’s dog team. It was not at all deterred by the presence of the dogs as it ate their food:
Polar Bear
12:08 AM
Polar Bear
12:10 AM
Polar Bear
12:14 AM
Polar Bear
12:16 AM
Polar Bear
12:21 AM
Polar Bear
12:28 AM

(Photos courtesy of Samuel Omik, Jr.)

After the bear was scared away from the CBC camp, it wandered along the floe between us and them, and Sam came by our tents and called softly that there was a Polar Bear visible. Fortunately, that woke Kate and she woke me. I climbed into my boots, threw my parka over my nightgown and went out to see. In the clear Arctic air, we had a good view at a safe distance — just right. I was very pleased for Sarah, who has been disappointed with the lack of Polar Bear sightings up til now; she was one of the first out of her tent and got a good look. I was quickly back into the tent, where I turned the heater on to warm it up a bit before Kate came back to bed.

We later enjoyed the celebratory self-portrait Sam took of himself in his tent after it was all over.