Arctic (Canada)

Narwhals that are Miles Away
August 2014

The main purpose of this trip is to see the Arctic Whales – Bowhead Whales, Narwhals and Belugas. Among them, Narwhals are on the very top of my wish list. I drew this before my trip:

Although the two polar regions share some similarities, visiting the Arctic is a completely different experience as compared to the Antarctic.

The scenery of the Arctic is as stunning as the Antarctic. However, the sightings of whales have been very distant during this expedition. Human impact is a major factor that affects animal behaviour to a really great extent. As whales and seals are hunted heavily by the Inuits for many years, the animals had been elusive and get scared away easily. They tended to stay a considerable distance from our ship and were scattered in different directions. As the hunters also use motor boats, this made approaching them by zodiac very difficult ( and we indeed didn't have a chance to try). Wildlife watching and hence the photographing of them had been extremely difficult. Although I can say for sure what species they are by looking at my pictures, it is still quite a frustrating experience.

Specimens inside the National Park Office - skull of Walrus, skull of Narwhal, baleen of Bowhead Whale

Human Impacts – The Effect of Years of Hunting

From my ten years' of whale watching experience, cetaceans are generally very friendly. Many of them are curious and will approach boats or even ships for a bow ride. However, for heavily hunted species like Narwhals and Bowhead Whales, it seems that they are always very sensitive and stay alert. Maybe, this is how they can stay alive.

The Inuit people nowadays are using guns to shoot the Arctic whales instead of their traditional way of hunting. Our tour leader had said, for every single Narwhals he had seen, all bear bullet wounds in their body. It is true that there is a quota, but only those that are shot to death counts. Those that died eventually and washed ashore are not counted. The saddest thing is, those Inuit people say they are proud of their eating habits and the presenter at Pond Inlet even told us that she just had Narwhal meat for lunch that day and she will feed her baby boy with Narwhal meat.

The closest encounter of Narwhal is this model being hung inside the visitor centre :'(

Because of this outdated so-called tradition, all the Arctic whales and other animals like seals are scared away so easily that we hardly had any chance to have a good look at them.

Is this practice sustainable? I don't think so. During our visit to Pond Inlet, we asked the officials of the National Park there about the Narwhal population, he replied that they do not have the information but the population is sustainable. My question is, how can they know a population is sustainable if they don't even have basic information like population? We had travelled a long distance at Baffin and we only encountered them for one day, at a place with hunting camp sighted and gun shots heard.

Hunting camp on the coast targeting at Narwhals

Hunting boat

Narwhals were sighted at a distance, off the hunting camp site

During our trip, we also obtained special permit to enter a whale sanctuary at Isabella Bay. However, inside this sanctuary, the hunting of whales by the Inuits is also allowed, subject to a quota. That means the area is relatively safe only. It was at this bay area that we had our first and only Bowhead Whale encounter. The animals were very sensitive and kept staying away from us.

Bowhead whales at a distance

Unforgiving Arctic Weather

Weather is one of the most important factors in wildlife watching. It can affect a well-planned itinerary and the sightings tremendously. And this time, we had become the “victims” of the unforgiving Arctic weather...

Arctic whales have a preference for ice. This is due to the fact that there are algae underneath the ice which serves as food of other tiny creatures at sea. These creatures in turn become the food for other organisms up the food chain. As Arctic Whales prefer ice, we had to keep looking for ice in order to locate them. However, even if we followed the ice charts which were compiled from the data of the previous day, the ice just disappeared. And the whales of course had gone somewhere. We had sailed to traditional hotspots of these Arctic whales, but in vain. However, the irony is that, we were blocked by ice to get to our destination – Resolute Bay where we were supposed to take our flight on our way home. As a result, we had to leave the northern part of Baffin Island where the Arctic Whales are three days earlier and head back south to Iqaluit. We had no chance to look for Belugas as the hotspots were still blocked by ice and we had to leave early.

Iqaluit, the starting point and the ending point

Polar Bear Alert!

Polar bear encounters were the major highlights of our trip. We had met two mother and cub pairs, a male polar bear up-close, as well as many other individual polar bears from a distance.

Summer is a particularly stressful time for polar bears because sea ice is relatively scarce and they cannot hunt seals. They may starve for the whole summer if they get unlucky. Polar bear mother may even need to feed their baby while they cannot find any food.

Mother and cub – cub is relatively old, size almost as big as mother (first encounter of the trip). A male bear was nearby.

Mother and cub – cub much younger, roughly eight months old, very playful.

Male polar bear, initially sleeping on a piece of sea ice that floated next to our ship with the current and woken up by our shutter sound.

When we were on the zodiac, having a gathering on some sea ice, we were targeted by a polar bear and he was swimming right towards us when we were leaving. Phew...

Other animals


Bearded Seal

Ringed Seal


Guillemots – father guiding his chick for its first swim

Exotic Scenery

Physical Fitness: Reasonably fit, as you need to wear all those gears (waterproof jacket, pants and shoes) for zodiac landing and cruising and need to maintain balance when the sea becomes choppy. Long haul flights can also be unbearable to some.

Temperature in August: 3.5 – 6 º C


Ottawa -> Iqaluit (Capital of Nunavut) – scheduled service available, but we went by chartered flight

If the ship ends up at a remote place, charter flight may need to be arranged.