Saturday, 12 September 2015

Epic 80 in the Arctic...and it was EPIC!

Just finished an incredible trip - possibly the best trip I have ever done - through the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.  Due to ice conditions (or lack of them) we managed to get right up to Eureka at 80deg N on the WEST side of Ellesmere Island.

Apart from seeing Narwhal, 51 Polar bears, and other incredible wildlife, we had some of the most incredible animal behaviour observations I have ever had.  Our first Polar bear was a female with a small first year cub...but within a minute we had spotted another large male on the same flow.  The male headed towards the female, and she ran, with cub trailing.  The males intent was obvious, but the female managed to put distance between them, and he turned off.  But for some reason she turned around and headed back towards where she had been...big mistake!  The female couldn't see the male, obscured by a big ice hummock, and when they finally saw each other, they were within about 100m of each other...way too close!  For the next several minutes the male chased, steadily gaining as the cub slowed, not able to keep up with its mum over the rotten ice.  She turned and snarled, but he almost ignored her running past, his eye on the cub.  The cub dived into a watery pool on the ice and he jumped in on top of the cub, bringing it up in his jaws.  The female jumped in onto him, but it was all in the vain, the male had the cub and it was a quick death.  We had been yelling 'No! No!' on the bridge, but now it fell silent as people absorbed what we had just seen.  Being on the bridge I wasn't with my camera, but decided to head out and photograph the aftermath.  The male dragged the cubs limp body around for a while, the female wondering what had just happened, wandering off a little way, standing.

The photos of the male eating the cub are not particularly nice, but show a behaviour rarely witnessed before, possibly only once before by an expedition ship...and we had seen the whole thing from start to finish, an even rarer occurrence.

Our day continued with a lot of good sightings, and several close encounters, but what happened the next day, was beyond belief.  After having such an encounter with the demise of the cub, we didn't think we could see better Polar bear behaviour.  But another day in the ice saw us having more excellent encounters with bears.  The competition on the Bridge for spotting bears between crew, staff, and guests was hot, with staff and crew neck and neck for much of it.

With several nice close bears, we headed to dinner with a female and two second year cubs in view, the plan of approaching after dinner in mind.  The ship slowly headed in as dinner ended, the mother laying on the edge of the ice, the two cubs lying a short distance away.  The ship approached and the bears completely ignored us, until the curiosity of the two cubs got the better of them, and they started to approach the bow, and the female who was not too far away.  The got to where she was and then all three came in towards the bow, everyone silent, except for the clicking of shutters.  What happened next was surreal...the female pawed the ground, making a depression, sat down, almost on her backside, facing towards us, and the two cubs started to suckle!  All within 20m of the bow!  Not just for a minute, but for almost eight minutes the cubs fed, looking up every now and then, as she licked spilt milk from her fur.  They then got up, and the three of them walked down the side of the ship, the cubs standing on their back legs at various stages.  Absolutely incredible...

And missing a gyrfalcon whilst I was at an alternative landing put a funk on my day...until we had a pair at another landing several days later. And did they put on a show! Displaying to each other and doing false food passes - awesome!

The rest of the trip continued at this pace, sunny weather and clear skies with light breezes almost every day.  We crossed the 80degree North mark just after midnight, with the super moon having just risen, and the sun still in the sky.  Hundreds of Arctic hares sat in groups on the shoreline, looking like flocks of gulls from a distance.  The next day we had a hare within 5m that just sat there and posed.  Several days later a group of five musk ox on shore about 80m away.  What a trip!  All with a crazy overnight in that was fun!  And the Expedition Team, well what a ripper of a team!

A friendly pooch in Sisimuit

Red-necked phalarope with food at Sisimuit

Baffin Bay icebergs, on the way to the Canadian Arctic and Baffin Island

Narwhal blows against the light

Narwhal! And there is a tuck in there!

The male after the kill

The poor little cub reduced to a food item

Another bear encounter

A mother and cub that swam right past us

Another mother and cub come in for a look - so many standing bears!

Starting to make her nest

One of the cubs approaches

Dinner time!

Gyrfalcon pair putting on a display

Super moon rising with the sun still up behind us, all at 80deg N

The Arctic hare of the trip

Musk ox

The beautiful tundra of Ellesmere Island

Ralph Lee Hopkins on the tundra

Red-throated diver in flight

Spectacular columnar basalt archway

Double waterfall...what does it mean?!

Coming in to Ilulissat

On our way south through the Labrador Sea