27 August 2014

Arctic - August 2014

Well, it's been far too hot in the UK this summer, so where to go to cool down?
Why, go north of course!
This'll be my second time in Arctic waters, the first exploring Svalbard a few years ago, and this time taking an expedition ship from Churchill in Manitoba, crossing the Hudson Bay to reach Baffin Island and finishing the voyage on the west coast of Greenland. Exciting stuff!
I'm travelling with long time friend and fellow adventurer Richard, last seen summiting the Mönch and more recently exceeding 70kph on his road bike...
Millions of us travel each year by plane, an event now much on a par with getting on a bus. But it's an entirely different experience travelling by sea, particularly when venturing into the polar regions. It's exciting. The vast bulk of our ship, the ice strengthened Sea Explorer, appearing on the dockside gets the adrenalin going. This is going to be our home over the next two weeks. Running the gauntlet of sudden storms, ice bergs and calving glaciers, our ship will become an old friend, protecting and nurturing us as we travel northwards beyond the Arctic Circle.
Here's our trip diary...

Day 1

Greenland, our final destination, seen from our Icelandair flight from London via Keflavik
With my previous history of working in the adventure travel industry I took the opportunity to meet old friends and colleagues in Toronto - the excellent folk at Quark Expeditions, and Dallyce Macas, owner of Eminence, a travel representation company. A great afternoon catching up with everyone before an impressive dinner at Patria in downtown Toronto which provided excellent Spanish tapas. A nice way to start what will be an epic trip.

Day 2

We took a private charter flight on First Air, with the distinctive polar bear image on the tail fin of the ageing 737 setting the scene for our journey ahead. It was 2 hour 45 minute flight to Churchill on the south west shores of Hudson Bay at the point where the Churchill River enters the Bay.
Fortuitously, we arrived during the calving season for Beluga Whales, and our first stop in Churchill was a beach overlooking the Bay to view the many whales feeding here. What looked like white-capped waves were in fact many Belugas, a sight only seen once a year for a week or two. There's an estimated 4,000 whales in the area right now. At this time of the year they come here to calve and the mingling of the warmer fresh water of the Churchill River with the salt water of the Hudson Bay facilitates the annual moult of the Beluga too.

Belugas off Churchill, Manitoba

We then took a short tour of Churchill, including lunch, a museum visit, and a trip to see the local polar bear holding facility where the many polar bears that wander into the town end up before being released at a distance from the human settlement. Bears frequently visit the town, evidenced by one recent mauling of a local out walking early in the morning. And it's understandable when you consider that the local population of bears on the western fringes of Hudson Bay is estimated at 950+ animals, somewhat greater than the permanent population of Churchill.

Welcome to Churchill!

Boarding our home for the next two weeks, the M/V Sea Explorer

Toughing it out in the Arctic...
Late afternoon we boarded our ship, the Sea Explorer, but not before a farcical customs check on baggage, and found our luxury cabins and facilities.
But no time to relax. We were quickly on to the Zodiacs, giving us many close sightings of the Belugas, some blowing bubbles right next to our Zodiacs, swimming closely past to have a look at us, some in groups of three or four, the calves grey in colour unlike the brilliant white of their parents. This was a unique and unforgettable experience, especially when one small pod surfaced near us, issuing a whistling sound as they passed, justifying their popular name - 'Sea Canaries'. What a great start to the trip!

Day 3

The ship took a northerly track overnight on relatively calm water, a gentle swell only, bringing us, in bright clear weather, to Marble Island, a relatively small island with sheltered inlet used historically by whalers in the 1920 and 1930s. It's greyish white rocks rise some 20m out of the sea, white quartzite, very smooth in places and bearing the marks of glacial striation from the most recent glacial period, interspersed with patterned ground and erratics of red sandstone, greywhacke, granite and gneiss. Geologically fascinating, with evidence from raised beaches that the island is still rising, at about one inch per year, as it was depressed into the earth's crust under glaciation and is now in the process of bounding back.
Colin Souness, glaciologist, on Marble Island
Unfortunately, the island is also littered with the graves of many whalers who perished here, and also that of James Knight, an early explorer.
As we walked the island, we had time to study the diverse tundra vegetation, including many forms of lichen and moss, interspersed with patches of Arctic Cottongrass, small flowers, dwarf trees like the tiny Northern Willow and swathes of ground hugging berries (Arctic Blueberry, Crowberry). Easy walking, though our expedition guide was ever watchful for polar bear, so flare gun and rifle armed and ready just in case we were surprised.
Some bird life seen too, some Sandhill cranes, swans, Canadian geese and various waders, plus evidence of Arctic fox and lemming.
Late afternoon we returned to the ship, on a one metre swell under leaden skies, a sign of the rockier night ahead.
The day concluded with the Captain's Cocktail Welcome before dinner.

Day 4

Overnight the ship moved further north and then north east towards Southampton Island, the sea rougher now with a 30 knot wind and light rain.
The deteriorating weather forced an abandonment of our intended landing on the diminutive Walrus Island and we proceeded eastwards towards Coats Island through the Fisher Strait, the waves now swollen to about 3m in a Force 4-5 wind, with random surges which ensured that we always had 'one hand for the ship'. But we made good speed, at about 15 knots, as we were tracking the direction of the current.
Whilst in transit Laurie Dexter, the ship's historian, delivered a talk on human development across the North American Arctic, followed by Bob Headland on the history of the discovery and subsequent mapping of the Arctic regions.
Late morning brought us to Bencus Island, just off Coats Island, and a regular haul out for walrus. But due to shallow water we had to moor 0.5 miles off shore, and sea conditions once again precluded any Zodiac excursions.
Our next objective is Cape Dorset, the southwestern tip of Baffin Island. Early evening we took shelter at Cape Pembrooke en route, but big seas ruled out any Zodiac attempts again.

Essential rehydration on a bumpy crossing on Hudson Bay
Greenland brew
Day 5

It was a very bumpy crossing overnight, entering the Hudson Strait as we slept, literally rolled back and forth like a piece of pastry by the motion of the ship! With a wind speed of 30 knots, grey skies and a temperature of 5 degrees C we passed another potential landing site at Salisbury Island and continued onwards to Cape Dorset, an Inuit community famed for its concentration of artists.
Resigned to another three hours of transit, we were to have some more immediate excitement though. Just as a lecture on Inuit art was concluding, a large flat-topped iceberg appeared on the port side. Measuring approximately one square nautical mile and estimated to contain some 324 million cubic metres of ice, this huge piece had floated down from northern Greenland (most likely the Petermann Glacier which had two major 'calving' events in 2012), southwards through Baffin Bay into the Davis Strait and now residing in the Hudson Strait. This, apparently, is a very rare sighting in the Arctic, such a large chunk of glacier and not to be confused with the form more commonly seen in the Antarctic (which are sections of ice shelf unique to that region). At its furthest extent a large iceberg had detached itself from the main body, and was beginning to tilt, its sides revealing the curved erosion of the waves that will have battered it for months. There was also a stream of brash ice in its wake. Now it feels like we're in a polar region!

The huge iceberg seen on route to Cape Dorset
Cape Dorset was to be our first 'cultural' stop, and with local guides we toured this small settlement famed for its art industry, mainly carvings of  'dancing bears' and other fauna of the area in local serpentine rock and soapstone,  plus prints of images produced by local artists. Locals whizz around on quad bikes, their homes brightly painted to break the bleakness of their physical environs. They get four to five tourist ships per year here, so there was a lot of effort made to make us very welcome, and, of course, to buy their wares.

Local art for sale

Heading for Mallikjuaq Island
Later we landed on Mallikjuaq Island, just offshore from Cape Dorset, to view the remains of ancient Thule settlements, observe a classic inuksuk - a pile of stones used to mark a geographic point of significance like a fording point on a river, a navigational landmark or a stash of hunted meat - and the remains of other settlement in the form of kayak stands and tent circles. As usual our guides carried arms in case of polar bear.

Local Inuit guide on Mallijuaq Island
Inuksuk on Mallijuaq Island
As we returned to the ship, on a much calmer sea now, the sun was starting to poke through the clouds, a good omen for the following day. Some of the local Inuit joined us on the ship for dinner, two of whom demonstrated the local tradition of throat singing, a semi competitive activity, where one party sets a rhythm and tone, the other having to match or complement it, until one falters. Clever, engaging entertainment.

Day 6

Overnight we headed south from Baffin Island across the Hudson Strait and moored at Digges Island, in northwest Quebec. Once home, over a thousand years ago, to the Dorset people, the island of gneiss rock of the Laurentian Shield (with some black doloritic intrusions), has remnants of some thirty stone houses, a well preserved fox/wolf trap and numerous inukchuit.

Inuksuk on Digges Island
Digges Island, just off the mainland, is best known for being the spot where Henry Hudson met Inuit people for the first time, in 1610, just before his crew mutinied and left him for dead.
From our various viewpoints we could see lateral moraine from past glaciers, raised beaches at different levels, and thousands of Brunning guillemots flying low over the sea on their way to feed.
But the most fascinating part of this landing was the Zodiac journey, on calm clear water filled by small black pteropods (small mollusk with lateral fins, which give the appearance of actually flying through the water) and a multitude of small comb jellyfish, some displaying iridescent green or blue lights within their body. Great stuff.
Then on to Eric Cove, a Hudson Bay trading post from 1909 to 1949, mainly trading in Arctic fox (the traders decimated by an influenza epidemic in 1928). This was our base for a longer hike, about 10km with 400m of ascent, initially following a wide river, with a couple of caribou seen on the far side, before heading straight uphill to open out our views. From the top, the vastness of the landscape of northern Quebec was revealed to us. As usual our guide, this time Christine, scouted carefully ahead in places for polar bear, who do travel significant distances inland during the summer months. A good yomp.

The 'chargers' above Eric Cove, northern Quebec

Wolstanholme Island was our last port of call for the day. The cliffs, viewed from Zodiacs, are the hatching ground for a large colony of guillemots, home for 500,000 breeding pairs, and we were to see the spectacular fledgling behaviour, where three weeks after hatchig, the young bird dives from its narrow perch high on the cliff into the sea, accompanied by its father, who then take to the sea for a few weeks before the young one is ready to take to the air. An impressive sight, the sky around us absolutely chock full of birds going for their last feed of the day before returning to roost.
But the day had one more surprise for us. It had been bright and sunny all day, and just after midnight we were awoken by our expedition leader to advise that the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) were displaying, so many of us donned warm clothes and rushed to the observation deck to enjoy this wondrous spectacle. Great swathes of light, some forming curtain like shapes directly over our heads, another forming a spiralling trail behind the ship, and all this time the western horizon defined by the thin red line of the last vestiges of the day. Awesome. 

No apologies for so many images of the Northern Lights...nothing quite prepares you for your first ever sighting of them!
Day 7

A late start given the hyperactivity of the previous day, beginning with a talk by Laurie on the formation of the new province of Nunavut from the previously huge region of the North Western Territories. And a good discourse of the evolution and role of the stone pillars found throughout Inuit lands, the inuksuk. Lunch was followed by a lecture on regional geology by Colin Souness.
Our destination today is the small settlement of Kimmirut on the south east coast of Baffin Island, the approach littered by icebergs. This is a small settlement of about 500 people, with no alcohol permitted to the residents, and originally a Hudson Bay trading post called Cape Harbour. It's a bleak spot at the end of a narrow channel expertly navigated by our Captain, not helped by the low cloud and overwhelming greyness of the water and surrounding low hills and islands. But lovely people here, even barbecuing Arctic Char and offering frozen raw fish for us to enjoy. In fact it looked like the whole town turned out to greet us as we landed on the town beach.

Kimmirut, Baffin Island
Football match with the locals in Kimmirut
There's not a lot going on here, limited tourism, and mainly hunting and fishing with a small service economy to sustain the community. Two flights a week by Twin Otter to Iqaluit, the capital of Baffin Island, thirty minutes away. But just like everywhere else in the world, connected via satellite and internet widely accessible for the locals. Personally, I'm not into big group visits to 'interface' with local communities, but I was impressed with the warmth of welcome we received, and doubly impressed with the effort that the Quark expedition team made to have fun with the locals, talking to elders, playing a short football match with them and giving the youngsters in the village joy rides in the Zodiacs around our ship anchored in the harbour.
A good evening in the bar, our little team winning the quiz :-)

Our journey across Arctic Canadian waters, now at Kimmirut
Day 8

Overnight we re-crossed the Hudson Strait to reach the shores of northern Quebec once more. We were early on to the Zodiacs to land on Diana Island (Inuit: Tuvaaluk) to view Musk-ox, part of a 2,000 head herd which was started in Nunavut (Baffin Island) back in 1973 with the import of just three animals from Ellesmere Island.
We had some good sightings, stealthily approaching the animals like hunters, grabbing some good shots before the herd spooked and moved on. A few blackfly today in sunny calm conditions on this rather boggy island, and a sighting of a couple of loons on one of the many small lakes found here.

Musk-ox on Diana Island
There's a few more icebergs appearing now, and our next transit eastwards across Ungava Bay to Akpatok Island took us through some fog banks en route. 
We travelled on Zodiacs late afternoon to the massive limestone cliffs on the western periphery of Akpatok Island. One Polar bear had been sighted from the ship so we headed straight for him, only to observe a mother with two cubs further along the beach below the cliffs. She was very skittish and defensive for her offspring, so we left them alone, spent time watching the larger bear as he scoured along the top of a scree slope directly below the cliffs, searching for dead young guillemots who had not survived their hallmark dive from their nests in order to reach the sea below.
Then another two bears were spotted northwards, one of them just beyond the cub stage who promptly dived into the sea from the beach, either to take a closer look at us but more likely to escape our attention. The other joined the first bear at the top of the scree, both very watchful of each other, but their close proximity passed without incident, both more interested in us offshore.

Polar bears on Akpatok, waiting for fledgling Guillemots to hit the beach!
It was a fine afternoon on the Zodiac, a bright sun warming us and giving the cliffs an amazing hue as it started to lower in the sky.

Black Billed Guillemots ... one million birds estimated in this colony alone
Guillemot colony at Akpatok

Off Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay

Day 9

Overnight we crossed the Hudson Strait once again, and moored off the Lower Savage Islands just off southeastern Baffin Island. Our early Zodiac excursion took us through one of two channels that divide these barren rocky islands, deep water troughs which follow ancient fault lines. Our only wildlife sighting was a Harbour seal, unimpressed by our approach and easy to photograph. The light on the calm inner waters of the channel was fabulous, a silky black hue, providing wonderful contrast to the low igneous rock bluffs on either side. But it got very cold, and as we exited the channel to return to the ship, more bergy bits were spotted, a sign of the colder waters we will be crossing over the next few days.

Small bergs off the Lower Savage Islands
Exploring the channel through the Lower Savage islands
Harbour Seal, Lower Savage Islands
Later we steamed north to find the diminutive Monumental Island off the southeast coast of Baffin Island (named as a monument to the Arctic explorer, Franklin). In transit an excellent lecture on glaciers by Colin Souness but otherwise steady progress in banks of fog, caused by warm air colliding with the very cold sea.
A Zodiac operation to look for walrus on Monumental Island proved fruitless, but once again showcased the skills of our Captain and excellent expedition team, who navigated in choppy water with very low visibility to this tiny, rocky island in the middle of nowhere, the latter using radar reflectors to get us back to the ship, which appeared like a ghost ship in the spectral evening sun attempting to cut through the fog. One polar bear was spotted by one of our Zodiac groups.
The evening was spent partying to celebrate our departure from the Canadian Arctic and the start of our passage across the Davis Strait to reach the west coast of Greenland, a journey of one day and two nights. Bizarrely the theme of the party was Hawaiian!

Party time...

Day 10
Neptune ceremony as we cross the Arctic Circle
A quiet day on the ship crossing the (thankfully) calm waters of the Davis Strait, crossing the Arctic Circle 66 degrees N at about 1630 local time, with a ceremony led by a colourful Neptune character and champagne and ice cream for all. Tomorrow, Greenland!

Day 11

Our navigation of the Davis Strait proved to be about half a day faster than expected due to very calm conditions, although it was a largely foggy crossing, a lecture on sea ice and glaciers keeping us occupied for part of the passage.
Our arrival in the famous Disko Bay on Western Greenland was presaged by the sighting of many icebergs, bergy bits and growlers (bergs of completely clear ice, containing no air, and sitting lower in the water than the others). These are the remnants of the many glaciers pouring off the massive Greenland Ice Cap, the second largest in the world after Antarctica. These bergs come in all shapes and sizes, and are a fantastic testament to the wonders of this icy wilderness.

Icebergs galore in Disko Bay
Aided by radar to avoid the bergs, the ship came into Disko Bay at about 4-5 knots, and calmly took us into a narrower channel in the north-eastern reaches to start our various excursions. Low lying fog on the landing area persuaded some of us to take a Zodiac cruise to see some of the bergs close up, an awesome spectacle.
After dinner, preceded by a charity auction in support of polar bear research, we observed the nearby glacier named Eqip Sermia. With a face spanning 5km and flowing at an astonishing 4km per year, this presented us with a unique experience, the very frequent noises of the glacier advancing, and 'calving' into the icy waters of the bay in which we were now anchored. The noise it made was just incredible, regular and very loud sound akin to artillery fire or claps of thunder - unique due to very fast flow rates of Greenland's glaciers.

Massive icebergs, Eqip Sermia, western Greenland
Day 12

Early morning fog closed out views of Eqip Sermia, and it's slightly less active during the morning as the cold of the night slows the flow. It's our objective today, walking up the lateral moraine aside this epic tumble of ice, deeply crevassed as it has made its way to the coast. Just awesome.
An awkward landing on to low lying cliffs, followed by a marshy walk across a rich and colourful carpet of tundra vegetation and a few challenging river crossings made our first landing on Greenland a memorable occasion. The walk of about 5km there and back brought us up a short ascent on to the moraine directly next to the magnificent glacier, the face about 200m high and frequently and noisily calving ice into the bay below. The noise, akin to clap of thunder, was a fabulous rendition of nature in the raw. Real goose bump stuff.

Autumnal tundra vegetation
Fun river crossings!

A 'calving' event from the face of the Eqip Sermia glacier 

Careful loading of the Zodiacs in a tsunami risk area
Every time the glacier releases ice into the bay a mini tsunami is generated, and one hit our landing area whilst we were away walking, increasing the local high water mark by about 8m. Accordingly, the expedition team do not land Zodiacs on to beaches here, and use easy angled sloping cliffs to land against so that we could avoid the tsunami effect if it occurred whilst attempting to re-board the Zodiacs on our return. Professional, skilled stuff by the Quark team.

Disko Bay and Ilulissat, West Greenland
Back to the ship, Arctic dips for some from the rear Zodiac deck, and a BBQ on one of the rear decks, the ship now repositioned to Ilulissat, Greenland's third largest town and home for some 4,000 souls. The name of the town means 'iceberg' in Greenlandic, and it sits next to one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, the Ilulisat Kangerlua or Jacobshavn Icefjord, itself 40km long and generating 20m tonnes of ice per day. Giant icebergs, stranded on a shelf at the end of the fjord, dominate the seascape here, huge walls, canyons, and remarkable shapes.

Fortified by vodka, the inevitable Arctic dip

Whilst enjoying a drink in the bar, a nearby berg calved twice right in front of the ship, hundreds of tonnes of ice spilling into the sea and the whole iceberg titling as the weight balance shifted. And then, a final bonus just before we turned in for the night - a humpback whale nonchalantly swan by on our port side. We could clearly hear the blow hole and were rewarded with a tail fluke before this magnificent animal disappeared into the deep once again.

The cream specks show the icebergs in the channel ahead !
Careful navigation required on the approach to Ilulissat
Day 13

Our penultimate adventure day. Moored just off Ilulissat, the ship initially with a mechanical issue that meant Zodiac transfers in the morning to reach the port. It's a gloomy day, low cloud and fine but drenching drizzle. Many of us have helicopter rides booked to overfly the glacier, but all that seems rather uncertain right now.

And then things came together. Mechanicals sorted out. Our ship docks in a very tight harbour with much fine manoeuvring by the Captain and his crew. A good walk through the town, the brightly coloured houses providing some respite from the gloom and waves of drizzle that continue to ebb and flow. And then out of town, through the kennel areas for vast numbers of husky dogs, the adults chained up for the three or four months of the summer, the pups wandering around, seeking attention from anybody prepared to pet them, on to a long wooden board walk which took us into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ilulissat Icefjord.


Husky puppies 

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ilulissat Icefjord

And spectacular it is, the approach taking you through vast swathes of autumnal colours on the tundra vegetation and banks of rich green moss amidst the bog and many small lakes. Then, very shortly afterwards you are rewarded with the spectacle of the many icebergs caught up on the shelf at the head of the fjord waiting to be released by the spring tides of next year, but currently blocking a 70km long fjord and with billions of tonnes of ice waiting to move again. Massively impressive, and visited again in the afternoon to exploit the brighter light.

Ilulissat Icefjord
Day 14

We repositioned southwards overnight, on fairly calm seas for the last part, the early morning bringing us into Sisimiut, Greenland's second largest town with about 4,500 people living here, some in the attractive brightly coloured houses close to the port but most living in drab low rise blocks further uphill out of the town. But under bright sunshine and a chill wind, it was a good place to wander, go visit the many husky dogs whose home was further inland away from the town housing areas, and on our way back to the ship a chance to taste local 'delicacies' including dried minke whale meat (good), raw Beluga skin (yuk) and some excellent local prawns, the latter being the mainstay of the local fishing and food processing industry.


Husky dogs outside Sisimuit
Local delicacies - dried Capelin, dried Greenland Cod, dried Minke whale, raw Beluga whale

A transit further south took us on big seas to the tiny village of Itilleq, on the entrance to Hivdieqfjord, a small community focused on hunting and fishing. It was a beautiful afternoon, albeit with severe wind chill, and the brightly painted houses stood out amidst impressive mountain scenery inland.

The perfect spot to end our last full day in Greenland, the lovely Itelleq
Our evening was spent celebrating the imminent end of our journey, a gala dinner followed by trip slideshow and, unsurprisingly, a few last beers.

The second half of our expedition, from northwestern Quebec, to Baffin Island and then across the Davis Strait to Greenland
Final days along the west coast of Greenland
Day 15

Disembarkation day, landing us at the head of the long Kangerlussuaq Fjord followed by a short tour to view the massive Greenland Icecap above this old USAF air force base, now handling about 300,000 tourists per year. 

Distant view to the Greenland Ice Cap from above Kanderlussuaq
Kanderlussuaq airport
Final beer in Greenland
Then a four hour 15 minute flight to Copenhagen, first passing over the icecap below us. Very impressive views, but then much needed zzzzs! A final nightcap with fellow travellers at the Copenhagen Airport Hilton.

Views down on to the Greenland Ice Cap
Day 16

Copenhagen to Birmingham with SAS. And, back to reality!

With thanks to the Quark Expeditions team on board, capably led by Alex McNeil, and a special award for the excellent bar team led by Sixto!

Another day at the office for the expedition team!

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