Day 11 |
Aug 09, 2008

Akpatok Island, Nunavit, Canada

By Dr. Brent Stephenson, Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: 60° 35.86’ N, 68° 01.56’ W

Weather: foggy till 0800, then crystal clear skies and fine and sunny skies

It started out looking pretty bleak. After sailing all night through fog, the ship slowed its approach to Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay, which was still shrouded in fog. But yet again the weather gods were smiling, and as the Zodiacs were launched, the fog miraculously thinned until the island was bathed completely in beautiful sunshine. Our Expedition Team headed out in Zodiacs to quickly scout the area and look for Polar Bears along the shoreline. They didn’t even have to leave the side of the ship before the first bear was spotted!

Far more importantly, of course, streams of thousands of Brunnich’s guillemots (or thick-billed murres as they are known in North America) were seen heading out to sea from the huge limestone cliffs. Clouds of the black-and-white penguin-like birds filled the air – obviously the similarities with penguins stopped as soon as we saw the birds flying. This island holds the largest population of breeding thick-billed murres in Canada with an estimated 520,000 breeding pairs. All available ledges along the cliffs were crowded with breeding birds, with many chicks in evidence. A few glaucous gulls floated around the cliffs, obviously looking for unguarded eggs and chicks, and black guillemots also paddled around on the sea nearby.

As usual, two Zodiac cruises were organized, one after the other, and the first party was soon heading off towards shore and the Polar bear that had been spotted earlier. We followed its progress along the shore until it managed to duck out of sight behind a raised beach. Nevermind, another had already been spotted further down the beach and so we headed along towards that. Managing to get great views of the bear walking along the base of the cliffs in search of any birds or chicks that had fallen from the breeding cliffs, our Zodiacs kept parallel with the bear. Eventually it climbed up a small scree slope onto a low part of the island and disappeared, but not before lying down briefly at the top of the slope and looking out over us.

We then headed back towards the ship and came across another two bears right on the beach adjacent to the ship. Those still onboard had already been watching them through binoculars, and before long they were joined by the first bear we had seen, who had decided to be a little more social. From the safety of the Zodiacs we managed to get nice and close without causing any stress to the bears. An absolutely amazing experience.

Then it was time for the second group to head out. Starting with the first bear seen, as we approached the beach we found him lying amongst the surf, apparently cooling off! He then headed up to the base of the cliff and found a dead thick-billed murre, which he proceeded to gracefully devour. Spellbound, we watched for 15 minutes as he ate, albeit with a little less class than most of us in the dining room. We then decided to head off further around the coast, and oh were we glad we did. Before too long we had spotted another lone bear, and then a female with two first-year cubs!! One of these was also eating, and as the female watched us approach she slowly led them off along the shore. What a sight! We decided to leave them in peace, with little realization we had only just started our bear ‘feast’. As we headed along the shore the tally soared, with another mother and two smaller first-year cubs, and then several more singles, before seeing another mother with two much larger second-year cubs. At one point, we had seven bears on the beach within one binocular view…this was getting a little overwhelming. In all we tallied 21 different bears for the morning, including three mothers with cubs. So that makes 27 Polar bears in 24 hours! Who would have thought Nunavit, Canada would be so good to us.

Heading back to the ship and realizing our good fortune with both weather and bears, we of course enjoyed another fantastic lunch onboard. It appeared the change in itinerary made by our Expedition Leader Conrad Combrink had paid off! However, for many of us, the excitement of the morning was too much, and a good nap following lunch was all too tempting before enjoying a lecture by our Environmentalist Dr Claudia Holgate. Claudia explained the weather patterns normally experienced in the Arctic, in particular why some regions remain ice-free during winter. However, any explanation for the run of good weather we have been experiencing would have to centre around pure luck!

We then continued to enjoy the calm seas and superb sailing conditions as we headed towards Labrador. It had truly been a day to remember, and we all felt extremely privileged to have spent so much time with the incredible Polar bear.