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The whole point of this exercise, the justification for the pain and disorder, was to get to the edge of the ice. The more or less rigid ice sheets range in depth from 1-6 feet and on the bottom of it where light penetrates through the ice and it’s protected from wind and wave action and it’s a constant temperature, there is a thick layer of algae, swimming with copepods, jellyfish, and small fish like cod. So, the marine life is focused on the edge of the ice floe where it can get access to air and ice to rest on, but close enough to feed on this algae forest. Particularly the whales will go long distances under the ice and then pop right up at the edge because they’ve run out of breath.

The camp itself is not right on the edge because that’s the more unstable ice that will break off first. And while we’d had to get special “global rescue” insurance so that if we broke off and started floating toward Greenland, someone, in theory, would try to come get us, you’d hate to push your luck. The view from the camp was this:

View from the camp

You see the dark band of water sky to the right. That direction was the ocean. When we could see the sun, it didn’t set and rise. It traveled in a circle overhead and morning was when it was closest to the ocean side of the ice floe.

But at this point it had begun to snow. We traveled the hour out in the qamutiq to the edge of the ice, past another tourist camp (the Adventure Canada Polar Sea Adventures camp run by a guy named Dave Reid who apparently had a serious bug up his ass because he started the first ice floe camps out here and felt that everyone else was horning in on his territory) and a couple native hunter camps.

The sea was dark blue, rolling with grease ice, and completely empty. But we set up for a couple hours — camp chairs, tarps so we didn’t put our camera gear directly down on the ice, the thermos of hot water for instant coffee and tea, the snacks. In for the long haul. And then waited. The sky was filled with birds, mostly Thick-billed Murres, but also King Eiders, Northern Fulmar (which have a gland to excrete salt on their bill), Old Squaw Ducks, and Canadian and Snow Geese.

King Eider Duck
Thick-billed Murre

What I loved most about the little murres is that they looked like flying fat little penguins. Their feet were too far back to walk around on, they used them as ailerons to control their flight. And they were constantly popping up in the water off the ice edge after swimming down and feeding along the bottom of the ice floe. Flocks of fifty or more of them flew by every few minutes, all headed right to left in front of us.

A one point a juvenile walrus swam by and popped up as if it was going to crawl out on the ice right in front of us about 15 feet away, then when it saw us, threw itself back into the water. So fast that only one of us got the money shot of the walrus half out on the ice (and it wasn’t me).

a juvenile walrus

Brenda had this cool little toy she brought with her — an audio recorder with a hydrophone attached that she could throw into the sea and listen. She promised that she would put some of these files up, but they were fascinating. Swirling trills from bearded seals that would not be out of place in a science fiction film, deep booms from bowhead whales, grunt noises of narwhals, the high pitched whistling of belugas (they’re called the canaries of the sea). There’s a page here with some audio clips until Brenda gets her files up. And other one that has narwhal sounds. I sat there for long minutes listening to the headphones, only trading them out for other people to listen very reluctantly.

We had a “scientist” with us, a lovely young girl that was trying to get accepted to a PhD program in Norway that had done her master’s thesis on the stomach contents of the Greenland shark. Unfortunately, she was really kind of useless — seldom came out on trips with us, didn’t really volunteer anything. I tried to talk to her at one point about Greenland sharks and walked away without knowing how big they are or what were the contents of their stomachs.

But what I did notice, during the course of the afternoon, was that just down the ice from us, maybe a 100 yards to the right, was a group of natives hanging around, standing there with their guns and harpoons, chain smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. These were hunters. Everywhere we went all week, there were hunters. Now I’ve gone out in the wild to see wildlife before, but this was the first time, I’d done it in an area where the animals I was trying to observe were actively being hunted at the same time, where I’d been mixed in with the hunters. If the narwhal I’d come to see had popped up right there on the ice edge, they would have been killed right front of us. For me to get what I want, a close up photo of a narwhal (which I’ve always thought of as a non-destructive event), that animal would die.

The fog rolled in closer, cutting down visibility, so we headed back. Ended up taking a walk around the icebergs next to the camp.

icebergs near camp

The running total of mishaps at this point in the story is just (1) Kathy’s wrist. (But no worries, this is about to go up.)