Heart of the Arctic – Day 2

Saturday, July 18, 2015
Akpotak Island, 60˚11′ N  68˚23′ W
Sunny,  6˚C   

We were awakened before our scheduled 07:00 wakeup call with an announcement that a polar bear had been sighted on the shore of Akpotak Island, where we had dropped anchor.1-IMG_4345a

Moments later, folks came up on deck to a glorious, sunny, blue-sky morning.  A male bear was sighted rambling on the scree at the base of the sheer limestone cliff.  We were anchored about half a kilometre from shore, and so the bear looked about the size of a peanut. Thank goodness for a good pair of binoculars. A mother and her cub had come along and the male bear  jumped into the water to avoid her. Males know not to mess with a mom and her cub. All three were enthusiastically photographed and watched through binoculars for 45 minutes, and well past the time the dining room doors opened for breakfast.

We were definitely lucky to see bears on our first stop, but then maybe we were unlucky that they were so far away. Actually, I totally missed the mom and her cub. I was focussing on a couple of vanilla icecream lumps that I thought were bears, but when they didn’t move, I realized they were rocks.


One thick billed murre that made it to adulthood.

I should just mention that Akpotak Island in Ungava Bay is exceptionally beautiful with steep cliffs rising straight out of the water. Well, not quite — there is a bit of a beach and scree between the water and the steeply rising cliffs. Akpotak is a large island about 23 kms by 45 kms. Apparently, on its flat plateau top there are a couple of research cabins accessible only by helicopter. Other than the odd researcher, it is unhabited by humans, but popular with thick billed murres.

‘Akpotuuq’ was aptly named by the Inuit as a place of many akpok (thick billed murres). Millions of the little black and white birds nest on the island’s cliffs. Their eggs are triangular, so they don’t  roll out of the nest and off the cliff wall. The mother looks after the little chicks, then in August the fledglings jump out of the nest. They can’t fly yet, so plummet several hundred metres to the rocky beach below where, if they aren’t gobbled up by a polar bear waiting open mouthed for it, they waddle to the ocean and swim off with their dad where they learn the ways of thick billed murres. I think the murre chick plunge is similar to this one that BBC filmed:  http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141020-chicks-tumble-of-terror-filmed


Bear is to the left of the grounded bergy bit. This was taken with my telephoto lens.


Same bear on beach left of bergy bit, not taken with telephoto lens.

The bears waiting at the base of the cliff for these tasty morsels have drifted there on ice floes and have been fattened up by the seals they ate on the way to the island. The murre chicks are just a treat, like eating chips.

The staff meetings, held 15 minutes after wakeup call, are where we get the lowdown for the day. There are 34 of us and each assigned various tasks, regarding the zodiac cruise or shore landings for the day. We find out we can’t land on Akpotak Island, so 12 zodiacs will do two – hour and a half cruises along its shores. I was assigned to number 10 zodiac for both cruises with driver Dawson Freeze, son of our terrific host David.

Both our zodiac cruises spotted bears. We had to stay 500 metres from shore so they were again peanut sized, but exciting to see bears nonetheless. We also spotted an iceberg, a low rounded old melted one. We did get a close up of that — no binoculars necessary, either.


Thick billed murres and berg off Akpotak Island.

Meanwhile on the ship, Milbry Polk gave Part I of her presentation on women Arctic explorers to the group of guests scheduled for the 11:00 zodiac cruise. Then she repeated it to the group when they reboarded after the 9:00 cruise. I was very sorry to miss that one. After lunch, zoologist Ree Brennin-Houston talked about how Arctic animals were adapted to their environment. Pretty amazing. Cathie Hickson followed with a presentation to over 100 rockhounds on geology, with an introduction to Arctic rock history.1-IMG_4355

Ornithology experts George Sirk and Michael Shepard gave a tutorial on deck to a small group of 80 passengers about how to use binoculars. Unfortunately I missed it. After looking at the stone polar bears that morning, I could’ve benefit from such instruction. We heard that it was an excellent class, particularly as a rarely-sighted Sabine gull showed up to test their binocular skills.


Bird and bear watchers.

At recap before dinner, John Houston sat on a chair in the middle of the lounge dance floor and told in his low gentle voice a riveting story of how his father had come to the Arctic in 1948. James Houston was sitting on the beach drawing when an Inuk ran up to him with his fist in the air. In it he held a tiny caribou he had carved. When he saw it, James realized  the brilliant artistry in it, and thus inspired his introduction of Inuit art to the world. Then, John opened his fist and there was the little caribou. It was an incredible story.

Now, I have to tell you that for the first two days, musician Tom Kovacs went around the ship repeatedly greeting each guest by name, reading our name tags. But at recap he wowed all 230 guests and staff in the Nautilus Lounge by walking around and greeting every person by name, no name tag reading. He had memorized everyone — an impressive feat of memory in less than 48 hours.

I hosted a dinner table of four guests with Naturalist Michael Shepard. He told us a fascinating story of  an encounter with a killer whale in Antarctica. The orca came beside the zodiac several times.   Then breached  right beside the zodiac with his eye looking right at Michael. The whale then sank and moved directly under the boat where it hovered only six metres below them before disappearing. His story made the hair on my arm stand up. Never mind ghost stories – that was one whale of a tale.

Dinner was followed by Tyler Yarema’s great piano bar repertoire from jazz to boogie that had everyone up dancing, except me. I was so beat after a few songs, I turned in for the night. As I did, I noticed the sun sank to a soft pinky orange hue on the horizon as the ship set course for Kanigsujjuaq.1-IMG_4437a


About Season Osborne

I am a writer with a love of Arctic history. After finding a photo of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who claimed the Arctic for Canada in 1909, I was inspired to write my master’s thesis on Bernier’s contribution to Arctic sovereignty. This ultimately led to extensive research into Canadian and ‘foreign’ expeditions to the North, which morphed into my recent book, In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912.
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2 Responses to Heart of the Arctic – Day 2

  1. Fran Bonner says:

    Thanks for sharing Season


  2. Whale of a tale…haha! 🙂


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