Skunked in the Arctic

After a slight delay (due to bad weather up north), I’m on my way back from the Canadian Arctic, sitting in Seattle airport after a bit of a convoluted detour involving a few flights, a drive from Vancouver, and a thorough grilling by a middle-aged US customs agent at the Canadian border, who decided it was his mission in life to lecture Jon and me (in as sarcastic and condescending manner as possible) about the ins and outs of proper border-crossing-paperwork etiquette (…he expected us to submit dozens of forms in advance, in order to be good citizens and make him happy) while withholding toilet privileges even as we turned blue in the face from exercising extreme sphincter control.

Have I ever mentioned my profound love of petty bureaucrats on power trips?.

Anyway…to cut to the chase…I’m sad to report that we got skunked. Totally and utterly skunked. As in…the beluga whales did not show up on schedule, despite the fact that they had done so for as long as anyone can remember.

We did see a few belugas, but the long and the short of the situation is that there was too much ice.

Yup. The pack ice in the Northwest Passage usually melts during June, early July at the latest. As of this writing, it’s still there, clogging up the passage. It was unseasonably cold most of the time as well, meaning the ice couldn’t melt.

Lauren Morton on ice at Arctic Watch
Lauren jumping for joy (I had the camera ready in case the ice broke)

My guess is that the abundance of ice makes it difficult and/ or dangerous for the belugas to make their way from Greenland (where they seem to reside during the non-summer months) over to Canada.

The few belugas we saw (up to maybe 100 or so at the peak) were skittish, and disappeared as soon as the ice moved back in after a temporary clearing.

On land, there were few lemmings, which are at the bottom of the food chain in the area, so topside predators like Arctic foxes and snowy owls were relatively scarce too.

Though we were obviously disappointed (as were a BBC film crew, researchers from Mystic Aquarium and other visitors), we practiced what I always preach. We had fun.

Nature will do what nature wants to do, and occasionally, you end up getting a major curveball like this. When that happens, you have two choices: become upset and miserable, or make the best of the situation and have a blast.

I am delighted that everyone in our group chose the latter response, meaning we went out on hikes, saw other animals like musk oxen and a polar bear, watched Arctic hares (basically white bunnies) run across hills (to simultaneous oooohs and aaaahs from our multinational chorus of women), drove ATVs, saw lots of ice (and rocks) and learned about ancient Thule settlements and bowhead whale remains that are thousands of years old.

I am, of course, deeply disappointed by the lack of beluga whales. Yet, I had such a great time that I can’t say I’m unhappy. I made a lot of new friends too (at least…I think we’re friends) and I’m looking forward to trying again in the future, when the Arctic works its way back to a more normal equilibrium.

My plane is leaving soon. A few snapshots from the trip:

May, Yuko, Tomoko, Jenny at Flatrock Canyon, Arctic Watch
A quartet of troublemakers: May, Yuko, Tomoko, Jenny


Flatrock Canyon, Arctic Watch Canada
Gina, Jon and May during a hike


Carlos and Jenny at Flatrock Canyon
Carlos having a good time. Jenny in the background eating. Again.


Alexia and Piper on snow
Alexia and Piper hiking across snow and ice on a sunny day


Unimog in the Arctic
Unimog: Mass transit Arctic-style


Evelyn and Jon in the Arctic
Searching for belugas in the middle of the night: Jon and Evelyn


Lost pants in the Arctic

Sven displaying all that remains of a previous visitor, who got caught in the mud


Jon and Tessum looking for beluga whales
Jon and Tessum looking for belugas, or was that unicorns?


Tony Wu in the Arctic
Me being…me


Lauren, Jon, Arctic
Jon photo-bombing to express his opinion about the dearth of belugas


Good friends in the Arctic
Good friends in the Arctic