Facts About Polar Bears—Their Plight and Prospects

2015 Northwest Passage Field Report

Tom Sharpe|November 3, 2015|Field Report

Saturday, September 5, 2015 - Edmonton, Canada / Kugluktuk, Nunavut / Embark Sea Adventurer: Full of excited chatter, we boarded our charter flight this morning as we left Edmonton for Kugluktuk. A brief refueling stop en route at Yellowknife gave us a nice view of Great Slave Lake and the last obvious trees we would see for the rest of the trip. Soon we landed on the small airstrip amidst the low tundra landscapes of Kugluktuk and set off along the dusty roads to the community hall, where we were treated to refreshments and a display of local dances and songs. Next door was the impressive new Ulu Centre, shaped like one of the traditional Inuit knives, which contained wonderful exhibits of local life and culture. Awaiting us out in the bay was the Sea Adventurer, and a short Zodiac ride took us to our home for the next few weeks. Our Northwest Passage adventure was underway!

Sunday, September 6 - Bathurst Inlet: A beautiful sunrise lit up the south coast of Victoria Island as we sailed east through Coronation Gulf. After breakfast, our Expedition Leader, Mike Messick, introduced the members of our expedition team before an entertaining but essential briefing on polar bear safety from naturalist, Conrad Field. Later, maritime historian, Jim Delgado, presented the Quest for the Northwest Passage and the tragic tale of Sir John Franklin, whose name is forever associated with the exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

In the afternoon, the Sea Adventurer anchored off the west end of Kent Peninsula at the mouth of Bathurst Inlet and a long Zodiac ride in took us to a rocky beach landing at Cape Flinders, the western extremity of the peninsula. We divided into several groups to search the landscape for interesting birds, plants, and rocks.

Monday, September 7 - Queen Queen Maud Gulf: As we sailed into Queen Maud Gulf on a windier morning than yesterday, we gathered in the lounge to hear ornithologist, Jim Wilson, give the first of his presentations on Birds of the Northwest Passage, describing some of the birds we may see and their remarkable migrations. By now we had reached the shelter of a bay on the southeast side of Jenny Lind Island. We went on deck for a view of this low-lying island, which was the site of one of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) stations set up by the US and Canada in the 1950s. Returning to the lounge, geologist Tom Sharpe described the Geology of Arctic Canada, from the ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield to the landforms of the permafrost today.

After lunch, we boarded our Zodiacs for a landing on Jenny Lind Island where some of us hiked up to the site of the now-removed DEW station. Others searched for birds, plants, and rocks, or wandered along the shoreline.

Tuesday, September 8 - Cape Felix, King William Island: Our plans for landing this morning at Cape Felix on the northern tip of King William Island, were quickly changed when our first polar bear was spotted on the shoreline by eagle-eyed Jim Wilson! We boarded Zodiacs and braved the choppy seas for a closer view. As we approached, the bear entered the water and swam parallel to the shore before returning to land and shaking himself off, giving us wonderful views of this magnificent creature. We watched him trot up to the top of the beach ridge and stroll along its crest to the point, before returning to the ship.

As we sailed from Cape Felix, we pondered the fate of Franklin’s expedition since it was in these waters, almost 169 years ago, that his ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, were beset by ice on September 12, 1846. Not far from here, to the east at Cape Adelaide on the Boothia Peninsula, was the location of the North Magnetic Pole when it was attained by the Ross expedition on June 1, 1831.

After lunch, Conrad spoke to us about Whales of the Arctic, while Hector Williams told us about the long history and activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The day was brought to a wonderful conclusion with a sighting of several pods of narwhal near Dixon Island, off the southeast coast of Prince of Wales Island.

Wednesday, September 9 - Bellot Strait / Fort Ross: A chilly pre-breakfast Zodiac tour in search of polar bears took us into Coningham Bay on Prince of Wales Island. Scattered beluga bones along the shoreline suggested a plentiful food supply for any bears in the vicinity, and we were fortunate to see several, albeit some distance from the shore.

Returning to the warmth of the ship and a welcome hot breakfast, Carmen Field gave her presentation on the much overlooked but vital base of the food chain, The Plankton of the Arctic. Soon, we entered the narrow and dramatic channel of Bellot Strait, which separates the most northerly point on the North American mainland from Somerset Island to the north. The ancient gneiss rocks exposed on either side of this dramatic channel provided a background to views of several polar bears, snow geese, and distant views of muskoxen.

After an enjoyable (indoor) barbecue lunch, we landed at the old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Fort Ross which was occupied for 11 years beginning in 1937.

Thursday, September 10 - Somerset & Baffin Islands: This morning, Jim Delgado led us to Fury Beach on the east coast of Somerset Island. Here, on a wide pebbly raised beach backed by limestone cliffs, the HMS Fury was stranded, unloaded, and abandoned in the summer of 1825 during William Edward Parry’s third voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. Some nine years later, in 1834, John Ross made use of this cache of provisions and spent the winter in a shelter they named Somerset House. Barrel staves and iron hoops, tin cans with lead-soldered lids, and other debris, including Fury’s anchor chain, lay scattered along the beach, a tangible and powerful link with these pioneers of the Northwest Passage.

Back on board, Rick Price discussed the seals, bears, and other large animals of the Arctic Ocean.

After lunch, we sailed across Prince Regent Inlet into a sheltered bay on the Brodeur Peninsula in northwest Baffin Island. Here we made a landing in the spectacularly bleak and barren stony landscape on the fifth largest island in the world.

Friday, September 11 - Beechey & Devon Islands: Arctic weather greeted our arrival at Beechey Island this morning. Squally snow showers blew across the raised beach, featureless but for the graves of the first members of the Franklin expedition to perish. We hiked along the shore to the ruins of Northumberland House, a shore depot built by WJS Pullen of Sir Edward Belcher’s 1852-54 expedition in search of Franklin.

In the afternoon, we entered Radstock Bay on the south coast of Devon Island and landed by the isolated limestone mountain of Caswell Tower. As we came ashore, we all had great sightings of a pure white Arctic hare sitting motionless amongst the boulders at the foot of the mountain. Amidst spectacular scenery on this, the largest uninhabited island in the world, our historians showed us the well-preserved stone and whalebone houses of the Thule people who occupied the area over a thousand years ago.

Saturday & Sunday, September 12 & 13 - At Sea: As we sailed around the south and east coasts of Devon Island, we had great views of spectacular mountain and glacier scenery as well as icebergs in Lancaster Sound. Jim Wilson continued his description of the Birds of the Northwest Passage, and Hector gave us the History of the Mounties of the North—but his talk was interrupted by the announcement of the approach of a polar bear on an ice floe! We all rushed for cameras and jackets and took up position on the decks where we were treated to superb views as the ice floe and its occupant slowly drifted past.

This afternoon we enjoyed a showing of Bay of Giants, a TV program on the bowhead whales of Baffin Island, filmed by our very own marine biologist, Rick. Later, Jim Delgado told us the story of Amundsen’s polar ship, Maud, recently recovered and now en route to Norway. Meanwhile, we arrived at the edge of the sea ice and began making our way between it and the coast of Devon Island. It was soon clear, however, that if we continued towards our scheduled stop at Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, we would run the risk of the ice drifting south and trapping us in Jones Sound. So, we turned around and followed the ice edge out into Baffin Bay. After dinner, Peter Alareak, our Inuit guide, donned his parka and gave a marvelous demonstration of traditional Inuit drumming.

The next day, as we continued our journey around the ice towards Greenland, Jim Wilson gave a wonderful talk on bird migration and how it is studied. Later, Tom spoke on the rocks of Greenland and the icebergs spawned by the Greenland Icesheet.

In a fascinating presentation this afternoon, Jim Delgado discussed his visit to the wreck of the Titanic and the work he and his colleagues have been doing to map the ship as she lies on the seafloor.

Monday, September 14 - Qaanaaq, Greenland: After two days at sea, we had an opportunity to stretch our legs as we made a welcome landing this morning on Herbert Island in Murchison Fjord in northwest Greenland. Fresh snow lay on the mountains around us and we enjoyed views of the glaciers descending from a small icecap on the mainland, opposite of the many glaciers in the fjord.

Returning to our ship and sailing across to the community of Qaanaaq, we reached our farthest point north on our expedition, 77º 29’ N. In Qaanaaq, a local choir, some dressed in traditional costume of sealskins and polar bear furs, performed for us in the simple Lutheran church. Afterwards, we wandered this remote and isolated community that had just received its last delivery of supplies for eight months, visiting the excellent little museum in the house of Knud Rasmussen, the famous explorer, transported from its original site and rebuilt here.

Tuesday, September 15 - At Sea: As we proceeded south towards Cape York, the wind strengthened and it was through heavy seas that we sailed into Melville Bay. During the day, we were informed and entertained by lectures from our expedition staff. Hector discussed The Vikings in Greenland, and later, Carmen spoke about The Toothwalkers of the North, the walrus. Rick rounded the day off with tales of his adventures as a wildlife cameraman.

Wednesday, September 16 - Kullorsuaq Island: The sea was noticeably calmer this morning as we approached the Greenland coast. Jim Delgado talked about his work on early 19th-century shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico and Conrad, a skilled scrimshaw artist himself, described this distinctive whalers’ art. By lunchtime we were in calm waters in the shelter of Kullorsuaq Island, with its big thumb rock pinnacle rising behind the village. Our Zodiac ride ashore took us past some beautiful big icebergs, and through a thick cover of brash ice blown inshore by yesterday’s strong winds, to a little jetty where the locals had turned out in force to welcome us with a performance of song and dance. Meanwhile, our kayakers enjoyed a paddle through the brash ice with large icebergs calving in the distance.

Thursday, September 17 - Upernavik: We arrived this morning at the busy fishing settlement of Upernavik, set on the rocky slopes of a small island 800 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Here we enjoyed a performance of Greenlandic music and dance at the town’s impressive sports hall. We were fascinated to hear a local man describe how they hunt their annual quota of 60 polar bears in the district between here and Qaanaaq, during the season between January and June. All parts of the animal are used and the meat is a delicacy kept for special occasions.

A walk through town brought us to the world’s northernmost open-air museum, with its cluster of 19th-century buildings and excellent displays of kayaks, seal skins, and works by the Danish artist Aage Gitz-Johansen. We saw our kayakers pass by below and later heard about the thrilling sighting of a minke whale.

Friday, September 18 - Uummannaq: Low clouds and overcast skies greeted us this morning, as our fleet of Zodiacs navigated through a field of icebergs to arrive at the fishing settlement of Uummannaq. Local guides led us around this compact town, to its (gneiss!) church, built in 1935, and excellent museum. By the long, yellow blubber house built in 1860, children from the local orphanage gave us a wonderful and enthusiastic performance of song and dance.

Meanwhile, our kayakers paddled to the edge of the town where signs of traditional life, hunting, and fishing were more evident than the town center, with sleds on the shore awaiting the arrival of the winter sea ice, drying seal meat on racks by the houses, and scatterings of whale bones.

During lunch, we repositioned to Qilakitsoq on the mainland coast to the south, where we came ashore in a little bay with many signs of Thule occupation, including houses and graves. The sure-footed amongst us hiked up the cliffs to an overhanging rock where, in 1972, the beautifully preserved mummified remains of several Thule women and children, dating from 1475 AD, were found. This famous discovery provided a new perspective to our understanding of these people.

Saturday, September 19 - Eqip Sermia: We awoke this morning to bright sunshine and clear views of snowy mountains as we sailed down Vaigat between Disko Island and the mainland before turning north through Atasund toward Eqip Sermia, a glacier descending from the Inland Ice to the coast. As we sailed, our Danish guide, Hannah Rasch, spoke to us about contemporary Greenland, succinctly summarizing Greenland’s history and explaining the modern relationship with Denmark.

Entering the bay, we broke through the thin, fresh sea ice that had formed overnight, a sign that winter is on its way. Overhead, thin clouds created a beautiful halo around the sun. Even in our Zodiacs, we had to break though the thin ice to reach our small landing beach on the mainland. Walks through the tundra gave us wonderful views across the ice-filled bay of the steep, calving ice front of Eqip Sermia and its more northerly neighbor, Kangilerngata Sermia. The birders were pleased to spot some white-tailed sea eagles, the long walkers made it to the edge of a wide meltwater valley with its braided river and bouldery bed, and the kayakers enjoyed their time in the bay ice.

Sunday, September 20 - Ilulissat: A heavy snow shower this morning was a further reminder of imminent winter. We transferred to local boats for a cruise along the wall of massive icebergs which block the mouth of Ilulissat Isfjord, a World Heritage Site. These huge bergs are trapped by shallow water at the lip of the 40-mile-long fjord and must break or melt further before they are set free into the sea.

We returned to the ship for a warming brunch before going ashore, our Zodiacs weaving their way through a maze of icebergs to the dock at Ilulissat, the third largest town in Greenland. Here we enjoyed a visit to the excellent town museum; the beautiful church, set on the coast overlooking the ice-filled bay; and wandered through handicraft stores. On the edge of town, we took a boardwalk to Sermermiut, not only an important archaeological site, with Stone Age settlement, but also a spectacular viewpoint of the ice-choked fjord.

Monday, September 21 - Sisimiut: Situated just north of the Arctic Circle, Sisimiut is an important fishing and administrative town with a long history. We were welcomed with blue skies and sunshine this morning as we disembarked for our tours of the town and a nature hike to the headland of Sallinguit. We saw the local crafts-people at work on their carvings, and visited the town’s excellent museum with its cluster of attractive wooden buildings. Returning to our ship, we watched a local kayaker, dressed in traditional sealskin, give an astonishing demonstration of his skill (and his resistance to cold water!) as he rolled his kayak time and again, even paddling upside down.

Sailing south this afternoon, it was time for the final recap of our Arctic adventure, along with the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. During dinner, we began our sail up the long, narrow fjord that leads to Kangerlussuaq.

Tuesday, September 22 - Kangerlussuaq: An early morning final disembarkation from the Sea Adventurer gave us time to explore the area around this airport town just above the Arctic Circle, before we departed Greenland. Some set off on a search for musk ox and other wildlife, and enjoyed a distant view of the Greenland Icesheet, while others aimed for the Icesheet itself, trekking through the hummocks of bouldery moraine at its margin and then up onto the ice, which had a thin cover of fresh snow. All too soon, it was time to head for the airport and our flight to Copenhagen, bringing our Northwest Passage adventure to a close.



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