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River of White – Across the Northwest Passage

6 min read

Guest Post by Nick Engelmann, Expedition Team Member

A “red whale,” I stand on the top deck in my innumerable layers of polyester and wool, encased in a red Mustang flotation coat, waiting. We are closing in on the eastern entrance of the Bellot Strait on our Northwest Passage: Franklin's Legend Arctic expedition, and the view from our ship, Sea Adventurer, isn't promising.

I look at the circular image through my binoculars to better see the white line of a standing wave. Solan Jensen, our Expedition Leader, frowns. He is adventure minded but also a believer in gut instinct. Wind. Current. Although he has just assigned us our roles as drivers and handlers, he's having second thoughts.

Quark passengers cruise in Zodiacs between the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island in the Arctic.

The plan is to cruise through the waters of the narrow channel. We hope to navigate the 16-nautical-mile (30 km) crack between the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island, past a significant geographical and historical apex – Zenith Point, the northernmost tip of North America. But the Arctic doesn't always concur with expedition schedules.

Solan's voice echoes gravely through our radios: “All staff … all staff … stand down. There will be no Zodiac cruise. I repeat: No Zodiac cruise.”

With a collective sigh, but also trust in his intuition, we wait in our cabins and then return outside for a ship's cruise. At least we will have the advantage of height from the outside decks.

The Whales and Bears of Bellot Strait

With much anticipation and a drum roll, passengers are urged outside by our Expedition Leader and his tireless enthusiasm. “Although conditions aren't safe to Zodiac,” says Solan, “we'll enjoy this amazing passage from the comfort of the ship.” The Bellot Strait is known for its whales and bears.

But the Arctic anticipates our move and trumps us again: fog. Through the obscurity and 7-knot (13 km per hour) currents, the ship sails as our guides look out for polar bears and whale blows. Neither are spotted. Zenith Point passes by, an unceremonious rocky blip that receives more photographs than it deserves.

Eventually, we emerge on the western side of the strait, into Peel Sound, but we wouldn't know it if not for the charts and radar. The fog remains, and soon after entering the open water, the wind and waves hit us broadside from the south. It isn't looking good. Our scheduled afternoon landing, Coningham Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, is directly in the path of this wind and swell. A landing or even a Zodiac cruise is not possible.

So, in true expedition style, we change course. Coningham Bay is discarded and Solan and Captain Saterskog quickly judge that the inlet directly west, Kennedy Bay, could offer protection from the strong southerly winds. We surge forward and, perhaps indicative of a good decision, the fog soon lifts and the wind and waves abate. When we're halfway across the strait, the sky opens up and the sea lays out flat, a mercurial prairie. The whitecaps disappear and, as a marine biologist and someone who has spent months staring at the sea, I believe that the water becomes inviting to whales.

Ahead, 10 o'clock to the bow, the surface churns. A glossy head emerges: a harp seal. Then another. And another. And then, at 2 o'clock, a mere 0.3 miles (0.5 km) away, an entire herd of shimmering heads and ebony backs emerge, surfacing and diving like small dolphins. But still, no whales.

Prince of Wales Island approaches. The low relief that typifies the central and western Canadian Arctic rises only slightly on the horizon.

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Unchartered Arctic Territory at Kennedy Bay

It is 12:30pm and passengers are at lunch, but I can't tear myself from the bridge. Something is out there.

Predictably, my stomach wins out, and I hurry to the dining room for a quick bite. When I return to the bridge, Solan, Captain Saterskog and a few passengers are scanning ahead with binoculars. No Quark Expeditions ship has ever entered Kennedy Bay; since major areas of the Arctic are uncharted, we have to proceed delicately.

As we close in, more harp seals break the now aquamarine water. A scan of the low, pale land reveals no cream-colored bears.

Dozens of Beluga Whales

Dozens of belugas show off for Arctic cruise passengers.

“Belugas!” shouts Solan, cracking the tension and formality of the bridge. “One o'clock – 1,000 meters!”

“Where?! Where?!” ask the passengers, whispering loudly.

I strain through my binoculars. Low hay-colored relief. Blue water. A rocky spit. Whitecaps. Whitecaps? Then, in the thin strip of blue between the spit and the far shore, repeating, rolling, white and glistening, are whales.

Solan's voice echoes through our radios. “All staff, all staff, launch time 10 minutes". Soon, the Sea Adventurer is at anchor and cranes are dropping Zodiacs on either side of the ship. Minutes later, the Zodiacs are filling up with yellow-clad passengers.

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Every driver is scanning. From the initial sighting, I gaze farther inshore. More belugas – 2 o'clock, 1 o'clock, 11, 10, 9.

My Zodiac teams up with 2 others, and we hum deep into the bay. Soon, we discover that the belugas are nearly in every direction, hugging the shore.

Despite our excitement, concern for the animals takes precedence, and once we near the first group, we proceed cautiously, reminding our guests that the belugas' well-being is far more important than capturing the perfect shot.

Every summer, as the ice melts, populations of belugas congregate en masse in the shallow coastal waters all throughout the Arctic. Belugas are unique amongst whales in that they have an annual molt. Scientists believe that warmer coastal waters and less saline riverine waters help the whales slough their top layer of old skin as they rub against the rocky bottom. These warmer waters may also function as a nursery for newborns as they put on thicker layers of blubber.

A beluga whale breeches to the delight of Arctic expedition passengers.

Now floating only 164 feet (50 meters) from the beach, we spot a surface disturbance – a blow, a glossy white bulbous head, a broad arched back with a rough dorsal ridge – followed by another and another. Then a much smaller, dark grey whale appears: a newborn.

Through the bluish crystalline water, we see round stones on the bottom. Then, only feet away, a refracted white form. Curious, it closes in on marine biologist Conrad Hennig's Zodiac, moving under it, around it, in circles and in figure eights.

Belugas have a unique anatomy. Despite their lumpy form, they are particularly agile and their unfused cervical vertebrae allow them liberal movement of their head. The beluga's bulbous forehead is the result of a fat-rich organ called the melon, which sits over their beak and in front of their skull. The melon acts as an acoustic lens, focusing echolocation beams (similar to what bats do) that the whales use to navigate the water and search for prey.

With both flexibility and echolocation, belugas can focus in different directions, orienting themselves through difficult situations and shallow waters. They navigate the dark arctic winter by finding vital breathing holes in the pack ice; in summer, they have been known to swim up rivers. Their confidence, however, can get the better of them, and stranded belugas – whether on sandbars or on shrinking polynyas in the sea ice – can become the prey of opportunistic polar bears.

We scan the rest of the bay to see if there are others. On the far shore, I'm drawn to something different: whitewater. We head over. We wait, only about 330 feet (100 meters) from the beach.

Toward the ship, we see a narrow section of whitewater. With no wind or current, it feels out of place, looking like tidal rapids moving toward us. A churning, violent “river,” about 82 feet (25 meters) wide, snakes parallel to the shore. Soon enough, between us and the shore, we spot a churning mass of whitecaps and brown upturned sediment – and then porcelain white skin, bulbous foreheads and huffy blows. We follow the river to its source, and it seems without end, a long white serpent running parallel to the shore. It's like a river within a sea – a river of belugas.

Arctic expedition passengers enjoy an afternoon Zodiac cruise, in search of whales.

The water is thick with them. How many are there? Everyone shouts a number: Guide Raefe Kirk-Lauritsen reckons there are dozens of them, Conrad suspects they're in the hundreds. But there are too many to count. I scan other parts of the bay, and white forms surface in all directions. It's impossible to make an approximation.

The belugas are moving so furiously, and there are so many of them, that after minutes of desperately looking through a jerking telephoto lens, I relent and put down my camera. This is a moment to experience fully.So we just float and watch. Passengers look in wonder and, indicative of the spectacle, our guides shake their heads. It is simply wonderful.

After hours on the water, we reluctantly return to our ship. Once back on board, reclining on the sofas in the main lounge, exhausted from the experience, we try to come to terms with what we witnessed. Miko, a historian, leans over and says to me, “Nick, in my 10 years in the Arctic, I have never seen anything like that."

What the Arctic denied us that morning had been returned a hundredfold – a foggy Zenith Point for a river of white.

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