Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021

© Margo Pfeiff

The Arctic safari takes advantage of the brief overlap between migrating walruses and bowhead whales each summer.

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Arctic safari

Swap a pith helmet for a parka while tracking whales, walruses and polar bears in Nunavut

I was jogging across the sea ice as fast as my chunky rubber boots and oversized parka would allow, feeling like the Michelin Tire Man version of the sleek, naked sprinter in the Inuit film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Sloshing through pools of turquoise meltwater, I aimed towards a massive, shiny black lump bobbing 300 metres away — a bowhead whale swimming in a hole he had smashed with the distinctive bump on the top of his skull through the 60-centimetre-thick ice.

Blowing geysers of mist into the air, he was taking a breather from sift-feeding on zooplankton under the ice. Bounding closer, I realized there were actually two — no, three! — whales sharing the same hole. Suddenly, each took a breath and slipped away, so that when I arrived, gasping for air myself, I was staring into a big black hole in the Arctic Ocean swirling only with slush.

Early that morning we had left the Nunavut hamlet of Igloolik on a 24-foot power boat with an interpretive guide, Derek Kyostia from Frontiers North, the polar-bear tundra-buggy folks. In 2011, the Churchill, Manitoba-based company ran their first-ever bowhead whale and walrus-spotting expedition, a kind of "Big-Two" Arctic Safari. It’s a rare event as this pair of hefty critters only overlaps in the same waters for roughly two weeks every July, so Frontiers North runs just a single one-week trip.

Giants of the deep

Bowheads — up to 20 metres long and weighing in at 75 to 100 tonnes — are the world’s second-biggest whales. In spring, as Arctic ice breaks up, they migrate from southern waters north into Foxe Basin between Baffin Island and the Canadian mainland, but their route is blocked by the icy plug of Fury and Hecla Strait: once that bottleneck opens, the whales head to their summer feeding grounds.

In the meantime, they gather by the thousands off Igloolik, population 1700. That’s where a small group of us dropped our gear at the Inuit family-run Tujurmivik Hotel and headed out for our first waterborne safari. Our boat as tethered on the seaward edge of the landfast ice sheet and we reached it via a ride atop a snowmobile-pulled komatiq, those magic Inuit sleds that flex like Gumby over bumpy sea ice.

Judah Sarpinak was our local Inuit driver/guide who grew up hunting and travelling these waters. Schlepping an impressive arsenal of telephoto cannons were Derek and two avid wildlife photographers from Japan, Miho and Naruo.

It was a calm day with ice chunks drifting in sunshine. We spotted our first whales within an hour, dozens of flukes flapping out of the water above a stew of whales. “Mating,” said Judah above the whir of cameras. We eavesdropped on whales feeding, singing, even snoring and there were continuous calls of “three o’clock, whale breaching!” and “spy hopping at five o’clock!” Whales rocking around the clock.

Northern arts

That evening I wandered around Igloolik where young women carry their babies in amauti parkas (with built-in baby carriers on their backs) and ATVs kick up dusty roads. I chatted with carvers’ creating sculptures in the warm 24-hour light, then headed to Igloolik’s flying-saucer-shaped science centre where a researcher poured over satellite images. “Fury and Hecla opened up this afternoon,” he said, “that’s it for your whales.”

Sure enough, the next morning there wasn’t a whale in sight. But we were soon on the trail of a polar bear meandering the floe edge, rising up on his hind legs for a look at us. After an hour he jumped into the water, swimming into a fog bank that blocked our route to walrus waters. We turned back to town after a walrus-less afternoon and tucked into caribou stew for dinner.

A traditional community with an active hunting, fishing and arts population, Igloolik is Nunavut’s cultural epicentre, home to the Inuit circus, ArtCirq, that performed during the 2010 Olympics’ opening ceremony, as well as the former Cannes award-winning Isuma Film Productions of Zacharias Kunuk. And, just before Frontiers North’s trip, Igloolik will host its third annual Rockin’ Walrus Festival from July 4 to 7, a homespun and fun music festival featuring talent from across Canada’s North.

The walrus whisperer

Throughout the next morning, Judah steered us through a moody, deserted labyrinth of ice chunks swirling with drifting fog. “We need a walrus whisperer,” muttered Derek. Finally, we pulled up on an island's pebble beach to prowl the remains of ancient sod houses built with boulders and whale bones. In a meadow of wildflowers we broke out a lunch of fresh bannock and smoked Arctic char. Flocks of eider ducks and kittiwakes swoop overhead.

When we set off again, we smelled the walruses before we saw them. On a pancake of ice perched massive blobs of brown and pink blubber adorned with mustaches and tusks, grunting, snorting and, yes, farting. Weighing up to 1.5 tonnes, it boggles the mind how much shellfish these fellahs — Odobenus rosmarus, Latin for "tooth-walking sea-horse" — must scoop off the bottom to keep their figures.

But Judah saw something else. The local Inuit hunt walrus for food, and as we slowly circled the loudly bellowing group he told us about a local delicacy called Igunaq, walrus meat cached for months under a pile of stone until it is fermented into something akin to hyper-aged blue cheese. “Mmmm…,” he said with a big grin, “my mouth is watering,”

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