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An Unscripted Arctic Safari: Candid Encounters with Iconic Wildlife

11 min read

There aren't any canned wildlife encounters in the vast expanses of open wilderness in the Arctic. There isn't one go-to list of specific coves or islands where expeditions go for guaranteed wildlife sightings. In these environments, all wild animals are deeply entrenched in a life-and-death struggle for survival. Every living creature is constantly in motion. Predators cover great distances looking for food, or any signs of what could lead to food. Prey species are constantly on the move, trying to avoid becoming food. Caribou and musk ox move from valley to valley, looking for ungrazed patches of Arctic vegetation. Seals travel with the drifting ice, foraging for their food under the surface of the water. Whales migrate, hopping from breeding grounds to feeding grounds as their seasonal bounties explode with life. And solo polar bears, “the great wanderers” of the North, have been known to patrol home ranges in excess of thousands upon thousands of square miles.

Quark passengers watch a polar bear from a zodiac.

Quark passengers on a zodiac watch a polar bear. Photo by Sue Flood.

A polar bear watches the Quark Expeditions ship pass by.

A polar bear scans the horizon for its prey. Photo by Sue Flood.

Needless to say, with wild animals at home in these wild expanses, no sighting is ever guaranteed.

Looking for Clues of Wildlife

However, like most places on Earth, there are clues that can help people find wildlife. Clues that, if recognized for what they are and what they could mean, can reveal the magic of an Arctic wilderness and its inhabitants. Such clues include time of year, sea ice conditions, weather events, tides, and other perhaps unforeseen factors. Localized conditions in one bay might be more favorable to wildlife sightings than a similar bay ten miles away. Local knowledge, accrued over decades of experience in these environments, help guides know where prevalent localized conditions exist, and what specific ice or weather events indicate at given times of the year.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees … in the Arctic?

Which reminds me of a story a guest from Japan once told me. It was about a keen birder who visited the forests of Japan, intent on seeing one specific, elusive species on his checklist. He hired a guide to take him into the forest to find the avian rarity. The bird enthusiast didn't know where to look, or where to even start looking, so he relied on his guide to read the clues presented by the forest. As they entered a woodland, the guide understood what season it was, what fruits were ripe, which plants had already flowered, and how all of that affected animal behaviors. What a heavy rainfall would mean for soil conditions and thus insect movements.

He knew where to look for specific trees, trees that had relationships with certain understories that provided microenvironments. One step after the next, the two ventured deeper into the woods, reading the stories the forest was telling them. And as they traveled, the birder gained a deeper appreciation for the entire context of the bird's habitat. The bird's world. They ultimately found the bird, after hours of searching, which was the icing on a much larger cake: an authentic interaction with the entire mountainside, from weather to streams to soils, from leaf litter to insects to birds.

Searching for Arctic Wildlife

An expedition leader at Quark Expeditions points out some wildlife to her group.

Nicky Souness, one of our Expedition Guides and Photographers points out wildlife to her group. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

The quest to find wildlife in the Arctic can be much the same. Sea ice conditions in June can mean something quite different than in August. A quickly approaching snowstorm in May will have a much different impact upon animal movements than one in September. Prevailing ocean currents might push pack ice into a certain north facing cove but not on its neighboring east facing cove, a fact which is not lost upon seal populations nor their predators. Arctic poppy in full bloom, or Arctic cotton grass gone to seed, can indicate foraging patterns, or lack thereof, of regional ungulates.

A landscape showing the dense ground cover characteristic of tundra.

A landscape showing the dense ground cover characteristic of tundra. Photo by Nicky Souness.

A reindeer peers over a hill

A reindeer peers over a hill. Photo by David Merron.

Each of these clues reveals one scene in the greater Arctic mosaic, and the more of these clues we recognize and understand, the more complete our perception of the Arctic becomes. And when we finally happen upon that herd of musk ox grazing on the opposite hill side, or the polar bear silently patrolling the early summer pack ice, our appreciation for their wild existence is enhanced exponentially. We understand the animals better, we recognize their lives are dynamic and challenging, full of risks, rewards, and constant movement. They are alive in their environment.

And as we engage in our explorations of the Arctic, we start to feel alive within ourselves– which is among the most profound feelings on earth to experience.

The Search for Elusive Icons

Of course, no wildlife sighting is guaranteed, and there could be days in the Arctic when wild animals remain elusive throughout the day. Perhaps some unknown event has drawn all of the bears in the area to one localized beach beyond our reach, where some sort of food has washed ashore. Or perhaps the sea ice in a given strait broke up early, and the seals moved further north to travel with and rest on their favored platform. These places are wild and unpredictable, and the best anybody can do in these environments is to be aware of the clues, interpret what they mean, and try to be in the right place at the right time.

I can think of dozens and dozens of examples of when fellow guides and I have used our collective and cumulative knowledge of an area, combined with the conditions that presented themselves on a given day, and were able to create wildly successful wildlife moments for our guests. A short list of them includes:

Whale-watching Spectacle in the Northwest Passage

While traversing the Northwest Passage (my favorite Arctic itinerary available), we'd been lucky and had observed a wide range of wildlife. But we hadn't yet spotted a single beluga whale. Our team spent hours and hours on the navigation bridge, scanning the shimmering waters through binoculars for any signs of slivers of white rising above the steely blue surface. In the height of summer, belugas in the Arctic often congregate in shallow bays where they can rub against the seafloor and exfoliate their skin (the only whale species known to do so). Consequently, every cove we crossed, every bay we traversed, our team was on a sharp lookout. Eventually, one of our guides caught sight of a single white dot, surfacing repeatedly in a shallow bay, two or three miles from our ship.

A passenger snaps a photo of a pod of whales.

A Quark Expeditions guest takes a photo of a beluga whale pod. Photo by Kendall Rock and House Lee.

Capitalizing on the moment, our ship slowed down in this nondescript bay on Prince of Wales Island, near Nunavut, and we lowered a Zodiac into the water to investigate. The news quickly came back from the guides who had gone ahead to assess the situation. What they discovered: Belugas, lots of them! We immediately lowered the remaining Zodiacs and notified guests of an impromptu cruise, launching as quickly as possible. One after the next, our Zodiacs motored carefully into the bay, conscious to reach the area quickly without generating any excess.

A beluga pod play in the water. Photo by David Merron.

And when we arrived, none of us could believe the sight in front of us: A river of whales stretched five or six miles along the shoreline. Hundreds and hundreds of belugas, congregating and socializing in the shallows, exfoliating against the pebbles and stones on the seafloor. None of us expected such a spectacle. We'd merely hoped to see a couple belugas. But the local knowledge and persistent scanning of the horizon led to one of the most remarkable wildlife encounters I've ever experienced. Hundreds of belugas, splashing, playing, vocalizing. Water boiling with whales as far as the eye could see.

We spent what turned out to be three hours in the bay, though it felt like half an hour. Each of us cut our engines and drifted with the current, watching and listening to whales, and occasionally having a curious visitor come and inspect our foreign vessels. The right place at the right time.

Unforgettable Musk Ox Encounter in Greenland

In Nordvestfjord, the longest fjord on Earth and the northwestern-most branch of East Greenland's Scoresby Sund, I had one of my most memorable musk ox encounters. These animals have been hunted for millennia and continue to be hunted for food by residents of Ittoqqortoormiit, a small Greenlandic community of 500 people more than sixty miles away. As a result, they are very flighty animals. If they detect any sign of humans, whether hunting or not, their immediate reaction is to retreat as fast as they can. This often makes for musk ox viewing at long range. But from time to time, the wind is just right, and the topography provides plenty of opportunities to remain hidden from view when approaching an ideal vantage point.

A herd of musk ox graze in a valley.

A herd of musk ox graze in a valley. Photo by David Merron.

Such was the case on this given September morning. We'd planned on going ashore regardless, as this particular peninsula in Nordvestfjord offers spectacular hiking and landscape photography. But as we lowered our anchor and scouted the shoreline for animals, we noticed a few small herds of musk ox high up on the hillside, a few miles from where we planned on going ashore. Our guides assessed the rocky terrain leading toward the mountain, and established a loose plan to follow contour lines, staying out of sight of the musk ox, until reaching a certain ridgeline along the mountain's folds. Once there, we could find a few large boulders to hide behind, hopefully glimpse these musk ox from just a few hundred metres away.

And that's exactly what we did. We followed the hill's contours and remained out of sight for the entire climb. Everybody spoke in hushed tones, whispering on the Arctic redpoll darting across the sky, and the unbelievably jagged mountain landscapes behind us. As we made our final approach to the crest of the hill, we huddled and stopped for a few minutes to catch our breath. We strategized and reminded ourselves about the need for slow movements, quiet voices, and staying out of sight. 
And then we made our move, slow and purposeful. And within the first few seconds of cresting that final ridge, we heard footsteps to our left, fifty to seventy-five meters away. A single musk ox who hadn't detected us (and whom we hadn't detected) was casually making his way down the backside of the ridge and to the valley below. Everyone in our group got a great look at this magnificent Pleistocene survivor. But perhaps more importantly, everybody heard him as he slowly made his way across the loose scree and down the far side of the ridgeline to the grazing grounds. A few guests even said they could smell him.

A single musk ox stands against the wind.

A single musk ox stands against the wind. Photo by David Merron.

Nobody moved until the musk ox was out of sight, save for the photographers among us who fired away at will. He eventually met up with the rest of his herd, and we spent nearly an hour on the ridge watching the male, several females, and a calf working the pockets of vegetation embedded in the rocky slopes.

Like the musk ox, we too descended the hillside, but back toward our landing sight and the Zodiacs. Many among us got fantastic photos of this near mythical figure of the North. And all of us came home with the memory of what a lone musk ox sounds (and smells) like when walking along a remote Greenlandic ridgeline at the back of the world's longest fjord.

Every Voyage is Unique, Every Wildlife Encounter is Unique

Any Arctic guide has a lengthy list of memorable wildlife encounters, most of which have been unexpected yet definitely earned through keen awareness and hard work. Polar bears popping up from the landscape like Arctic poppies. Bowhead whales cruising the ice edge. Snowy owls guarding their nest site on the naked slopes of the barren grounds. But what's important isn't the number of wildlife encounters, it's the unique nature of each experience. No two experiences are ever the same, no wildlife encounter can ever be replicated. There is no guarantee that any expedition will include beluga whale sightings for example, but they will likely see something else equally as fascinating and beautiful. These are unique moments in time, intimate glimpses into the wild worlds into which these tough and resilient animals fit so perfectly.

A polar bear stands against a backdrop of white-capped mountains.

A polar bear on sea ice with white-capped mountains in the background. Photo by Nicky Souness.

And as we search for these animals and encounter them when and where we do, we appreciate these magnificent beasts all the more for understanding their contexts, their environments, as well as the subtle features of landscape, weather, and ice that guide them on their own independent journeys through their Arctic lives.

What are the candid wildlife encounters you might have on an expedition in the Arctic? Start planning and find out for yourself.

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