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Polar Bear safari in the High Arctic

Posted in: Arctic

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Polar Bear safari in Canada like no other!

​Way back in August 2003 we first visited the little known Inuit town of Qikitarjuaq in Nunavut, Canada - YES, it took us several years to be able to spell the name correctly! This was as far north as we had ever been on the planet; way inside the Arctic Circle and with legendary Arctic Wildlife the photographic targets for the trip. This was not just any old Polar Bear tour, this was a true High Arctic wildlife adventure; led by a local Inuit man with eagle like eyes and with him as our expert guide, we hoped to see Seals, Bowhead Whales and the legendary Narwhal. 

Arriving into an Icy foreign land!

Looking out of the aircraft window on the final leg of the journey left me in no doubt that this was going to the biggest culture shock and eye opener of my trip. Stretched out below me was an massive expansive of snow covered high mountain peaks, as far as the eye could see, which eventually gave way to the most rugged coastline imaginable, where glacier meets fjord and spawns icebergs. A warm welcome awaited me on arrival and with the temperature registering a positively balmy -7C the weather wasn’t too bad eitherArriving into an icy foreign land! Walking around 'town' my eyes were drawn to seal and polar bear skins hanging outside to dry; which while shocking, was a true reflection of the susidence hunting which is legal in multiple Inuit communities throughout the province of Nunavut. What is key about all the destinations Wildlife Trails sell, is to be 100% transparent about what the clients can expect on the ground in a location where the local population have deep cultural links to hunting which at least must be respected; if not agreed with. So if the thought of seeing a dead seal or whale appauls you, then a polar bear safari in a Inuit community in the High Arctic is definitly not for you.

Polar bear watching on Baffin Island

Over the next 4 days I travelled much of the area by boat and motorised canoe with my Inuit guides, learned about their customs, culture, and way of life, and encountered many of the animals on which they depend for survival as they have done for thousands of years. While wildlife encounters are unpredictable and can never be relied upon, one thing that can be guaranteed in the Canadian Arctic is spectacular scenery, and the fjords, cliffs, and mountains of Baffin Island never failed to leave me speechless.

My first day out on the water was devoted to the pursuit of polar bears, but they proved unusually elusive with our only sighting that morning being a mother and 2 cubs a thousand feet above us on a hill side, with a large male in hot pursuit. To compensate for the lack of bears we spent a very pleasant afternoon cruising a picture postcard fjord, at the head of which was an incredibly imposing glacier, as wide as a two 6 lane motorways. Heading for home we stopped at a small rocky island where a whale carcass was known to be lying on a beach and sure enough as we entered a small cove and inched towards the beach there were 2 polar bears – a mother and a 2 year old – feasting on the remains. Our approach startled them and they headed for higher ground, and as we watched their ascent we spotted another mother with 2 younger cubs looking down on us from the highest point of the island. We circled the island several times and saw a third female, again with 2 cubs, and each time we returned to the beach the first bear and her cub had returned to the carcass. We also saw one of the other mothers swimming back to the mainland with her brood. After hours of fruitless searches we had suddenly found a plethora of bears, but sadly the light was failing and getting a reasonable shutter speed had become impossible. It had still been a great way to end the day, though there was still time to encounter another bear in the water far offshore as we headed back to port.Arriving into an Icy, foreign land!

Bowhead Whales in the Canadian Arctic

On the second day my guides set themselves the task of finding me a bowhead whale, the only large baleen whale to spend the whole year in Arctic waters, and the proud owner of the largest mouth on the planet, and this they did in spades. We spent the whole day criss-crossing a fjord to the northwest , seemingly surrounded by at least 4 pods, with 3-6 individuals in each pod. It was hard to say exactly how many whales we saw as you were never sure whether you were seeing a different pod, or the same pod coming up for air somewhere else, but I would estimate that we saw in the region of 20 individuals, some of which broke the surface right next to the boat, and two even treated to us to a tail slap and the classic tail fluke shot.

Searching for the legendary Narwhal in the Canadian Arctic

My third and final day was spent in an open motorised canoe in search of the elusive narwhal, the mythical unicorn of the sea. Again my guides didn’t disappoint, but it was almost impossible to get within camera range as the narwhals would surface once to breathe and then slip back beneath the surface for 20-25 minutes before surfacing again, more often than not on the opposite side of the fjord. Still I can claim to have seen as many as half a dozen narwhals, albeit fleetingly. The day proved to be a huge success however, because in the afternoon we spotted a female polar bear with 2 cubs in the water and watched them haul out and disappear up the hill. Minutes later we spotted another female, this time with a single cub, swimming further offshore. This time we were able to stay within camera range (sometimes as close as 6 feet) for 10-15 minutes, and left them still swimming purposefully towards shore having felt we’d intruded enough. The resulting shots are without doubt the best I have ever taken.

Ending my trip on such a special note, amid such spectacular surroundings, and in the company of such remarkable people as the Inuit, made it all the more special and it will live long and vividly in my memory. I have been truly blessed to have seen and done the things described here, and now look forward with great excitement to the possibility of helping clients to enjoy similar experiences and perhaps like me, realise a lifetime ambition. If you would like to experience a simialr unique wildlife and cultural Arctic Tour, then check out our 'Life on the Edge' Arctic safari and polar bear tour.

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