Day 10 |
Sep 03, 2013

Kekerten Island, Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island, Canada

By Chris Cutler, General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 65˚71.66’N 65˚81.39’W
Weather: Sunny, light breeze to variable wind, light scattered clouds.
Air Temperature: 0˚-7˚C, 32˚-44˚F
Sea Temperature: 1˚C, 33.8˚F
Wind: 2-23 knots

The day dawned beautifully as Silver Explorer cruised into Cumberland Sound situated at the southeast corner of Baffin Island. The sun rose over low hills in the distance and the wind was a mere few knots with nary a ripple on the sea. A tabular iceberg was seen at breakfast, far off and seemingly grounded close to shore.

Sue Flood entertained us with fascinating tales about her experiences working behind the scenes on BBC’s Planet Earth. One harrowing story from the Canadian Arctic involved her and the team floating off on a broken sea-ice floe as her husband-to-be proposed to her: marriage ensued as they were rescued.

I gave a talk on the polar bear, the apex predator of the Far North, and a species intimately associated with sea ice. Many researchers think that with the relatively rapid decline of seasonal sea ice, melting progressively earlier in recent years, polar bears will not have sufficient access to their primary food source, the ringed seal. Others speculate that the bears will adapt to a changing climate.

In the afternoon we went ashore to a fascinating little island, and site of Kekerten Territorial Park, not far below the Arctic Circle. This place, an expanse of spongy tundra amidst extensive flat granitic outcrops, with a stunningly scenic view of snow-capped hills beyond, is of great historical significance as it is where a whaling station once stood. Baffin Islanders spoke of a large bay full of whales and called it Tenudiackbik. Scottish and American whalers made use of the protected bay and the abundant bowhead whales in a short flurry of harvest in the mid- to late-1800s in what was then called the “Greenland Whale Fishery”. Bowheads have the longest baleen of any whale species, and this flexible and strong material was fashioned into buggy whips, umbrella ribs and corset stays, among other things, plus their massively thick blubber provided an abundance of oil for all manner of applications. Anthropologist Franz Boas arrived to Kekerten in 1883 and spent two years working on the Inuktitut language and studying Inuit ethnography. Our expedition team member Franz, the ornithologist, spotted a peregrine falcon and some calling ravens flew past.

Four very friendly Inuit guides made the 50km trip by boat from Pangnirtung (‘Pang’) to tell us about the history of the place. Strolling along a boardwalk, we saw try pots, wooden oil barrels, told frames of tiny houses made of whale ribs, some gravesites, and the gigantic skull of a bowhead whale. The scant remains of a recently hunted bowhead lay across the water from the park.

During the station’s tenure, many locals had traded with the whalers, and later came to work and live at the site. Sadly, although the cultural exchange was advantageous in many ways, lethal diseases were spread from the foreigners to the Inuit and many of the latter died as a result.

The place was beautiful, the weather ideal as the sun stayed out all day long, and we had the chance to experience a very significant historical site. We’d had an absolutely fabulous day in this far northern outpost.