Narwhal on an Arctic cruise
What you need to know about the Narwhal
The narwhal is a magical-looking creature, like a cross between a whale and a unicorn. Males most commonly have tusks, and some may even have two. The tusk, which can grow as long as 10 feet, is actually a large tooth. Research indicates that the tusk has sensory capability, with up to 10 million nerve endings on the inside. The tusk may also play a role in the ways males show dominance.
Narwhal: Interesting facts
Narwhals can be found in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The majority of the world’s narwhals live under sea ice for up to five months in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area. They use the cracks in the ice to breathe when needed, especially after dives, which can be up to over a mile deep. They feed mainly on Greenland halibut, along with other fish, squid and shrimp.
Spots where the Narwhal can be observed
On Admiralty Inlet on the very northwest side of Baffin Island.
Named after the whaling ship, the Arctic, in 1872, it is the site of quite a large community (mainly Inuktitut) called Ikpiarjuk, and a popular location to visit for expedition cruise ships. There is a museum and Ikpiarjuk a good place to learn about the culture. The area is great to ship cruise and explore for wildlife.
Narrow strait separating Somerset Island to the north from Murchison Promontory of Boothia Peninsula to the south, the northernmost part of mainland America.
The 2km (1.2 mi) wide and 25 km (16 mi) strait connects the Gulf of Boothia, Prince Regent Inlet, and Brentford Bay to the east with Peel Sound and Franklin Strait to the west. It became a strait on ‘one’ of the NW passage routes. On a map of the Canadian Arctic, unless you look in detail, it is easy to assume the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island is one peninsula. In many ways, with Bellot Strait locked in ice much of the year, it is like the peninsula. Since it is so narrow, it can be a place to look for Narwhal, and, along the shore, Polar Bear, or even wolf.
Between Ellesmere Island and Devon Island at the entrance to Jones Sound.
It is part of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area and Cambridge Point, with spectacular cliffs that are an important location for breeding seabirds including black guillemot, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, northern fulmar, and thick-billed murre. Offshore waters are also good for marine mammals.
At the very northern end of Baffin Bay and the very northwest of Greenland, Etah looks across the Nares Strait to Ellesmere Island, the area usually frozen from October to July.
The area was the crossing point to Greenland for cultures 4,400 and 2,700 years ago, the Thule culture migrants less than a thousand years ago, and the point of the last migration of the Inuit from Baffin Island reached the coast of Greenland in 1865 Etah was also a starting point for various expeditions attempting to get to the North Pole.
Today the channel, when frozen, continues to be a crossing point for wildlife from Canada to Greenland, even Wolverine get across. Etah used to be the most-northerly populated settlement in the world, but it was abandoned (Inuit moving south to Pituffik) due to the harsh conditions.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
Fort Ross is an abandoned former trading post on Somerset Island. First established in 1937 by the Hudson's Bay Company, it was only operational to 1948, as severe ice conditions in the surrounding waters made the site hard to reach and economically unviable.
It is interesting to visit a Hudson’s Bay Company hut and to contemplate the location. It is situated at the eastern end of Bellot Strait on a south-eastern peninsula of Somerset Island, a key location in the northwest Passage. Also good for a rage of high arctic species.
Karrat Fjord and Upernavik
Karrat Fjord, towards the north end of the Uummannaq Bay system, is a great fjord to explore with icebergs, rugged mountains, blue fjords, with the chance to walk on the tundra and look for wildlife. Various species can be seen but others can be elusive due to the proximity of Upernavik.
Upernavik, on the island of the same name, is a very pretty town on the slopes of the island, surrounded by magnificent scenery, at the entrance to the local fjord systems. As well as the colourful houses there is the most northerly 'open air' museum in the World. It also boasts to have the World's largest bird cliffs nearby.
There are a a few settlements further north before the ice sheet comes right down to the coast in Melville Bay between western Greenland and the very NW tip and Thule.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.