When people ask me what the High Arctic was like, I tell them to imagine being on another planet. A cold one, like Neptune, where everything is ice and snow, even the sea. It’s quiet in the Arctic, the way I think Neptune must be, save for the sounds of the wind blowing and icebergs calving. There are no scents, and the landscape is monochromatic, the grey of a sky burdened by storm clouds, the white of musk oxen bones that have lain bleaching for uncountable years.
And yet, as I learned during the nearly three weeks I spent sailing Baffin Bay with Adventure Canada, the Arctic — even far north of the Arctic Circle — teems with life. Life as fragile as it is powerful.
Whether the captain was carefully steering our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, through water dotted with icebergs the size of a dozen city blocks, or we passengers were hiking up a rocky valley to the age-smoothed edge of a glacier old when mankind was young, life was everywhere. Mammals and fish and birds and plants and even humans, who have inhabited this place where only the strong survive for some 4,000 years, greeted us. Of the region’s most famed animals, only the legendary, single-tusked whale called “the unicorn of the sea” eluded the Endeavour.
In the narwhals’ customary territory in Eclipse Sound, along the tiny Inuit town of Pond Inlet, we saw a pod of orcas swimming. Catching glimpses of the killer whales, their smooth-skinned black backs glossy against the sea, was so thrilling I gasped out loud. But the High Arctic is not the orcas’ normal territory; they have dorsal fins, which thick pack ice damages. The ocean’s warming waters have allowed them to migrate farther north, preying on narwhals, which the Inuit hunt. As we watched, a fishing vessel arrived, trying to scare off the killer whales.
Everything in the Arctic is dramatic, if not always quite as dramatic as a face-off between whales and fishermen, because everything is foreign, a revelation. One day we spotted five walruses on a far-off iceberg — even through binoculars I could see their long tusks and take delight when they dove as one into the water, resurfacing in great sprays of water. Then, as if the Arctic couldn’t help but top itself, we encountered a great herd of them heaped one upon another, the young tucked safely inside the pile, lazing on a shore in the sun.
Then there were the beluga whales, 300 or 400 of them — numbers, according to the Adventure Canada staff, seldom seen. Their skin glowed a ghostly white, and they swam in the same graceful arc that dolphins do. Like narwhals, their numbers are being reduced by orca, a predator previously mostly unknown to them.
Early one morning we were awoken by an announcement over the intercom. Polar bears had been located on an iceberg close to the ship. I pulled on as many warm garments as I could quickly — even 10 minutes outside without wearing multiple layers in the Arctic can leave a chill that lasts for hours. Out on deck I could see the bears through my binoculars, three of them, a mother and two cubs. They were gorgeous and comical, their round, curious eyes and tiny, button noses black against the ivory of their fur. The mother laid mostly flat, stomach to the ice, peering down a hole into the sea. At the other end, the two cubs lay sprawled together, sleeping late.
The bears appeared to be healthy and well fed — I’d been terrified I’d see the emaciated animals I’d heard of on the news. But as one of the ship’s Arctic experts told me, bears hunt from above via air holes scratched in the ice by seals. The chance of catching a seal through a random fissure in the ice, like the one the mother looked into, was almost nil. This was not normal behavior.
Polar bears are the world’s largest land carnivores, but just like narwhals and belugas and other Arctic creatures of great size, in some ways they’re as vulnerable as they are mighty. As vulnerable, I suppose, as mankind might prove to be. •SCM
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