Polar Sea 360°

Episode 04

Wild Science

Wonderful Anchorage Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and chronicler of the DAX voyage. DAX sails upon the sunny beach of Cape Hatt, Nunavut to make adjustments to the struggling sailboat.

August 9 - Cape Hatt, Nunavut

This morning I woke up to an outstanding sunny sky in Cape Hatt the “perfect harbor.” I had breakfast alone in the cockpit and afterward Bengt and I took the dinghy ashore to fetch water, oilcans, buckets, funnels, crackers, and the camera. We found a suitable stream in a ravine to fill cans with fresh, natural, cold water and carried them to the beach before taking a walk up the mountain. The view from one of the lower peaks was dream-worthy. At the very top Bengt, who had gone up the other side of the ravine, was a little dot on the rocky mountainside. I absorbed the majestic view and felt myself humbled and small.


We went back and forth a couple of times with the water jugs and the dinghy and communicated via VHF (marine Very High Frequency communication). We filled the gas tank with 110 litres. We tried fishing from the boat and caught a small sculpin that barely gaped over the hook. I managed to take it off the hook and throw it back in the water. Bengt made pasta dinner: canned ham and tomato sauce.

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This post is also available in: French, German

Modern Narwhal Hunting Map it

By Natasha Mablick, an aspiring history and language teacher, who hunts Narwhal every spring and summer in and around Pond Inlet. She explains her connection with hunting and the significant changes in Narwhal migration patterns she noticed this year.

Milne Inlet, Nunavut

Narwhal is essential to Inuit culture and diet. The maktaaq, the skin of the narwhal, can be eaten cooked or raw; it is really good with soya sauce! The texture kind of resembles octopus. The meat can be boiled or dried and fried. There are even some parts near the tendons that we use to waterproof kamiks (seal skin boots).

To me narwhal is important because it is a part of my culture that I do not want to lose. The hunting and preparing of narwhal is a practice that must be passed on from one generation to another. I would never be able to take part in narwhal hunting trips if earlier in life I was not taught. For example, there are certain places you must shoot them so that they will float; if you shoot them elsewhere the narwhal will sink.

“Narwhal is an important part of my culture that I do not want to lose”

Narwhal, like any other animal, migrate following food and responding to environmental changes. Narwhal live in open water and migrate north in May and June when the water begins to opens up. Environmental changes like the fluctuation in ocean salinity – as the water freezes and melts – indicate to the narwhal when it is time to come or go. Naturally, hunters also use this type of information to understand narwhal migration patterns. For the past three summers the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been tracking narwhal movements and sharing their observations with the community. Communication is vital to Inuit hunters near and far, especially during a hunt. Hunters are always on radios communicating with each other, sharing information about the weather and the animals that they are either seeing or not seeing in the area.

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We only catch narwhal in the spring and summer months. There are two different ways of catching them; you can either hunt from a boat or from the floe edge, only sometimes using a boat to fetch the catch. We begin in May, which is early in the open water season, heading to Nallua (Low Point) or Saattut (Lavoie Point). Once the ice breaks up, in the summer, the narwhal travel east towards Milne Inlet and Tremblay Sound in preparation for calving. This year hunting seems to be different from previous years; no one is really catching narwhal at Nallua, Saattut, Tremblay Sound, or Milne Inlet. Hunters everywhere are saying the same thing; there just doesn’t seem to be as many narwhal this year.

I suspect that freight ships passing through the area are playing a role in the changing narwhal movements. Narwhal are very sensitive to sound. This is the first year that the Mary River Mine has sent ships to Milne Inlet and coincidentally we have seen a significant population decrease this year. In camp we try not to walk around too much because the sound of our feet on the rocks can scare away the narwhal. Hunting narwhal by boat is even harder because the sound of the motor causes them to swim faster and stay underwater longer. If our tiny, 18-foot aluminum boat affects the narwhal you can just imagine how the big, loud cargo ships are going to scare them away.

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“I suspect that freight ships passing through the area are playing a role in the changing narwhal movements”

When I was younger I would spend time on the land with my grandparents. Once they passed away I had no one to take me out on the land, so I took any opportunity I could. I really wanted to ensure I did not give this up. I was fortunate that my uncle James Arvaluk took me with him. I have truly gained so much knowledge and experience from him.

I feel alive when I am out on the land. I feel like I have nothing to worry about; we hunt for our food and we will be fine eating that. When I don’t go camping or even hunting for a while I start to feel lost and I can get quite irritable. I am me when I am on the land. I feel proud to be Inuk when I am on the land; and I want my son to grow up out here on the land like James and I have grown up. I feel like I can grow old and satisfied that I have enough knowledge of my tradition, culture and customs, like hunting and harvesting, navigation, travel, and communication. We didn’t travel on dog sleds and seal skin boats, we had snowmobiles and materialized boats, but we were able to learn so many traditions as they were changing, before all this economic activity.

This post is also available in: French, German

Narwhal Research in the Canadian Arctic Map it

By Dr. Sandie Black, a Calgary-based wildlife veterinarian. During the summer of 2013, Black spent a week at an Inuit hunting camp on Milne Inlet, Nunavut with the Narwhal Tusk Discoveries Expedition Team, where she worked closely with hunters and scientists to research the health and condition of these fascinating creatures.

Baffin Island Coast, Nunavut

In 2004 one of the most fortunate and serendipitous events of my career as a wildlife veterinarian occurred when I was given the opportunity to work with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans in summer narwhal research camps. These are conducted in various locations around the eastern Canadian Arctic where narwhal are known to congregate during the ice-free season, usually during the month of August. Though I was very used to camping and wilderness activities, I was excited to be dropped onto a Baffin Island beach on a twin otter airplane for two weeks.

There were many things to learn about, from scheduling polar bear watches, to learning how to set the nets and handle the narwhal. These gentle 3 to 4-metre whales, with their beautiful gray and white mottled skin, very quickly stole my heart. During the live capture and satellite tagging, of eight narwhal that summer, I collected samples and data to provide a basic health assessment of each handled whale and to assess the acute stress of capture. While there will always be stress to free ranging animals when they require handling, every effort is made to minimize this.

By looking at stress hormone levels in narwhal blubber and stress associated proteins and bacterial flora in narwhal skin over time, we will look for any indication that stress levels are increasing and health indexes are decreasing as climate change and human activities impact narwhal habitat. Using archived samples, we can look at these measures retrospectively as well as prospectively each year, as we work with hunters and narwhal. Stress hormone work has been conducted in many wildlife species as part of a health index. Researcher, Amy Apprill, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has showed that skin bacterial communities are a possible measure of health in Humpback whales. This species of bacteria changes when the whale is good and poor health.

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“The ecosystems of polar regions are less complex than temperate regions. There is less resilience to adapt to man-made perturbations”

As an apex, highly ice-associated predator and as a major food source for Inuit subsistence hunting, the narwhal is an ideal sentinel for the health and resilience of the arctic ecosystem. Observationally, narwhal populations and individuals appear to be coping well with changes in their environment to date, although there are concerns that a high level of specialization to living and feeding in the icy waters of the Arctic, may limit their ability to adapt as the Arctic warms further. Recent work by Cortney Watt, a fellow member of summer research teams, showed that narwhal may be more flexible in their dietary choices than was previously thought. Cortney looked at stable isotope levels in skin samples taken from animals in different narwhal populations and showed that primary food sources vary between those populations and between sexes as well.

Over my years of working with this species and spending many happy hours immersed in the awe-inspiring landscapes of our arctic, my interest in the health of the narwhal population has grown annually. There is a plethora of scientific literature that now describes the potential deleterious effects of ecosystem level anthropogenic climate change on the health of Arctic ecosystems. The Arctic is the region of the world which is being affected most profoundly and rapidly by global climate change. The ecosystems of Polar Regions are less complex than those of temperate and tropical regions. The size and diversity of species is smaller, and there is less resilience, or stretch in the system to be able to adapt to man-made perturbations.

“These gentle, beautiful whales very quickly stole my heart”

With our work we hope to identify one or more robust, non-invasive health measures in narwhal, the results of which can help monitor the health of populations and forecast the need for protective measures and spaces. We would also like to look for possible correlations between any observed changes in health with measured changes in the environment such as increased human activity-shipping, fisheries, resource extraction, tourism; climate-related changes in ocean ice cover, salinity, storm activity; increased presence of predators such as killer whales and the potential introduction of disease through more southern species of marine mammals moving north as the ice recedes.

Our hope is that this work will contribute to a larger effort mitigating the effects of climate change on one of the Arctic’s most iconic animals as well as the people and communities that share the waters of the north.

This post is also available in: French, German

Our Hunting Heritage Map it

By Michael Kusugak, an award winning author and storyteller, who explains the significance of storytelling in Inuit culture and the hunting heritage he learned growing up in Naujaat, otherwise known as Repulse Bay, Nunavut.

Milne Inlet, Nunavut

I remember my grandmother telling us stories.

“Taipsumaniguuq…” was the way they always started, “It is said, long ago…”

Traditional stories and legends, like Lumaajuuq, were told for various reasons. For me, it was to put me to sleep at night, lying beside my grandmother in our igloo, with a flickering qulliq, for light and heat. I grew up in a world where there was no written word, so the stories were our entertainment, our history, our news, and our teachings. Morals were taught through those stories and we learned to live with each other, to care for our young, to support the disadvantaged, to tolerate the trials of everyday living and to strive for better things.

The story of Lumaajuuq talks of our dependence on all sorts of Arctic animals. We eat maktaaq (muktuk in English), the skin of the whale. We eat the skin of the bowhead whale and feed its meat to our dogs. Narwhal and walrus tusks are made into quick-release toggles for dog lines, our own version of the carabiner. And of course seals, the most important animals to us.

“We are fond of the food we eat, we are proud of our heritage, and we teach our young to be the same”

For Inuit, seals are everything. We’ve used seal fat in our qulliqs, the soapstone seal-oil lamps that heat our igloos and cooked our food. Bones were used to make tools and toys. Today we mostly use seal fat as a condiment to supplement our diet and seal skin to make clothing.

There are many species of seal but the two most important are the nattiq, ringed-seal, and the ugjuk, square-flipper seal. To this day we use sealskin most notably for footwear. Ringed-seal skin is used for the uppers and leggings. Square-flipper is used for soles because it is thick and very tough. Boots, kamiik are warm and light. The working kamiik, with the hair scraped off the skin, are waterproof. The fancy decorated boots, called niururiat were mostly worn for festive occasions. That is the kind mostly worn today although some of us still prefer the ordinary, furless kamiik for their utility and ruggedness.

“The story of Lumaajuuq talks of our dependence on all sorts of Arctic animals”

Before fossil fuels came north, seal oil was burned in qulliqs. Peat moss and Arctic cotton served as a wick. Even today I burn wood very reluctantly. I come from a place with no trees, where wood was too precious to burn. We needed it for wooden handles, sleds, kayaks and various other things.

Seal bones were used to make tools such as a mouthpiece for a bow drill. Seal flipper bones were used for toys called inuujat. In this game, each bone represented something like a snow block with which to build an igloo, sled pieces, dogs and other things. The object of the game was to create a working family with all its needs. Other bones were made into ajagaqs, a toy similar to the ball and cup game.

“Not only is it delicious and nutritious but seal meat also acts as fuel for your body, making you warm”

Most importantly, seals provide us with food. Not only is it delicious and nutritious but seal meat also acts as fuel for your body, making you warm. Elder Inuit will not eat seal meat when they are down south because it makes them too hot and sweaty. But on a cold day, seal broth is the greatest drink you can have to keep you warm. We have lived in the coldest part of the world for thousands of years. We have been taught to live in harmony with the wildlife that sustains us. We prepare for lean times, always. And the best way to do that is to ensure there is an abundance of wildlife.

We are fond of the food we eat, we are proud of our heritage, and we teach our young to be the same. I am proud to say my boys are good hunters and they enjoy eating the foods we grew up with. Our young people are learning the art of treating skins and sewing traditional clothing as it has always been done. These animals have sustained us for thousands of years and, in a world where snow is ever-present, where -50C temperatures are common, I will entrust my life to the seal.

This post is also available in: French, German

Pilot Fred and the Three-legged Dog Map it

By David New, Polar Sea TV series director. From Pond Inlet, David spends most of his time learning about and documenting local food, animals, and hobbies; but he never suspected he’d also be providing the local entertainment with his crazy cultural habits!

Bylot Island, Nunavut

Our helicopter pilot to Bylot Island is a forty-year veteran. He was trained in 1973 and has been flying the Arctic ever since. So our little excursion across the frozen sound is like a picnic for him, I guess. When he shows up to ferry us across, he is just back from helping to rescue 31 people who were stranded when a giant chunk of ice broke off from the floe edge and started floating away with them aboard.

Fred has a three-legged dog named Mukluk who goes everywhere with him, including up in the air. Mukluk has a little blanket set up on the floor in the co-pilot seat. Not that we have a co-pilot. Instead, I get to ride shotgun because John (The Polar Sea director of photography) is hogging all the space in the back, with a harness on and his tripod ratchet strapped down, shooting out the open door. I bet it’s cold back there. It’s nicer up front, especially with a warm dog on your lap. As soon as we get back from a fairly long day, Fred gets a call. A bunch of hunters he rescued a week ago had gone back out onto the broken ice trying to retrieve their skidoos and now they have to be re-rescued.


The next morning, I expect Fred to be in the mood to make some kind of sharp comment about idiots that do the same life-threatening thing two times in a row, but he says nothing of the sort. He says he feels for them. They’re people who have almost nothing. Those skidoos are an important part of their lives and it will be very hard to replace them. By the time Fred arrived they had been out on the ice for a week and were basically starving. Fred doesn’t see it as foolhardy behaviour, he has compassion for people in a really difficult situation. Fred’s a nice guy, like a flying Dalai Lama.

We tell him we want his direct line. If I do something really stupid, endanger myself, and need rescuing, I want to be rescued by Fred.

And Mukluk, who is also very non-judgmental.


This post is also available in: French, German

Chasing Polar Bears Map it

By Stephen Atkinson, a research biologist and veterinarian, who is currently leading the Baffin Bay Polar Bear Genetic Mark-Recapture Program, a polar bear population inventory research project in Baffin Bay, Nunavut.

Baffin Island Coast, Nunavut

I didn’t specifically set out to work on bears. Biology is my passion but, like many people who work on polar bears, once you begin studying them you really get hooked – there is so much we don’t know about this remarkable species.

Here in Baffin Bay we’re conducting a population inventory. Our primary objective is to determine the overall size and condition of the population, specifically: how many bears there are and how well they are reproducing and surviving. The study area for the project extends from the east coast of Baffin Island to Greenland, south to Davis Straight and north towards the entrance to the Northwest Passage in Lancaster Sound. The research is being conducted for the Governments of Nunavut, Canada, and Greenland, all of whom have some degree of responsibility to conserve and manage these polar bear populations.

“Today, polar bear numbers appear to be higher than they have ever”

This particular project has a unique aspect to it. Normally when we study polar bears we tranquilize and capture them to collect our data. Each animal is given a set of numbered ear tags and lip tattoos that allows us to identify them if captured again in the future. However, the entire program in Baffin Bay was accomplished without handling any polar bears. Instead, we used DNA as a way of identifying each bear; essentially the DNA served as a unique genetic mark or ‘fingerprint’ that substituted for the plastic ear tags we would normally use.

To get DNA from a polar bear without capturing it is not as hard as it might sound. First we approach the bear in a helicopter. From a distance we fire a biopsy dart from a rifle. When the dart impacts the bear it pinches a small piece of skin (about 4mm in diameter) and then falls to the ground. Afterwards the bear is able to walk away, a little shaken up but unharmed, and we are able to pick up the fallen skin sample. The DNA provides researchers with “core information:” the sex of the bear and its identity. While taking the biopsy sample we also visually assess the bears to collect information about body condition, estimated age, and the number and age of cubs.


Over the last 3 years we have genetically fingerprinted well over a thousand bears in this population. Looking at the number of bears we have fingerprinted and how many times we have encountered each individual, we can calculate things such as the total number of bears in the region. This method of estimating population size, called mark-recapture, has been used all over the world to monitor wildlife populations. Baffin Bay represents the first intensive and population-wide effort to use genetic mark-recapture.

Over the years methods for capturing polar bears have been refined and are very safe for both people and bears; although the very first time that I captured a polar bear it was quite nerve-wracking – I was so concerned about injuring the bear! As biologists we’re very concerned about the welfare of the animals we study and are always seeking to minimize stress on them. Any human contact with a polar bear, whether it’s flying over it or tranquilizing it, is going to amount to a degree of temporary stress; but it comes down to a question of degrees. By using biopsy darts, we can reduce contact with the animals and minimize stress on them. For example, biopsying a polar bear puts us in contact with that animal for several minutes. In contrast, capturing a polar bear involves a pursuit, the time for the tranquilizer to take effect, and a handling period to collect data. Contact time can range from 20 minutes to an hour. So biopsy darting is a lot faster and presumably a lot less stressful.

“Over the last few decades the polar bear has become a symbol of the climate change issue”

But, there’s a trade-off. By using biopsy darting to reduce stress, we aren’t able to collect as much detailed information. This limits what we can find out about the condition of a population. In some cases there might still be a need to capture bears to collect more detailed data; things such as body weights, blood and fat samples for health studies; so I think in future researchers will use a combination of methods.

Polar bears tend to receive more attention than other Arctic animals. I think there are a variety of reasons for that. As a large, white, charismatic carnivore, they capture people’s interest across the world. From a biological perspective, they are a long-lived, slowly reproducing species, compared to other animals such as the arctic fox. Theoretically this makes polar bears more susceptible to the effects of human disturbances including things such as hunting or habitat degradation. As a result, a lot of attention is paid to populations that may be in decline; the concern being whether or not the decline is part of a natural cycle or the result of human influences. All of this attention has had a positive effect, making polar bears one of the most closely monitored and well-managed species on earth and making studies like ours possible.

Over the last few decades the polar bear has become a symbol of the climate change issue. This has greatly increased the demand for information about the species, especially because the potential effects of climate change on polar bear populations are not necessarily easy to detect. This has led to an overall increase in monitoring efforts in Canada, where most of the world’s polar bears live.

One of the predictions of climate change is that there will be less and less multi-year ice and more first-year ice in some parts of the Arctic. Some hypothesize that the increasing amounts of first year ice will initially be beneficial for seal and polar bear populations, causing a rise in the number of seals and bears in areas of first-year ice. To understand this a little bit better, imagine yourself as a polar bear. One of the ways you hunt is by breaking through sea ice into a seal lair to catch a meal. Today the ice is really thick so you’re having a hard time breaking through it. If it were a little thinner it would be easier. Seals and polar bears don’t generally like multi-year ice because it tends to be very thick; bears can’t break through it and seals can’t maintain breathing holes, or birthing lairs underneath it.

“Some hypothesize that the increasing amounts of first year ice will initially be beneficial for polar bear populations”

Of course if the sea ice continues to deteriorate then you’ve got more open water. From there, you can imagine that an animal that hunts and walks on ice will have a harder time feeding and surviving in an environment without ice. This will result in a decline in the number or distribution of polar bears or both. In other words, they will go where the ice is, and where the ice isn’t there will be fewer of them. The logic is simple; less ice, less bears.

It’s important to understand how changes in the environment might affect polar bears and make predictions about the future of the species. But predictions need to be tested to know whether they are coming true or not. As wildlife managers or conservation biologists we can’t manage what might happen 50 or a 100 years from now. The key is to monitor and understand what is happening right now and respond appropriately, which is why the Baffin Bay Biopsy Project is important – this type of research gives us the current numbers and trends; information we can use to take action now. Today, polar bear numbers appear to be higher than they have ever been since detailed records were first kept. Close monitoring through projects such as ours will help keep track of the species.


This post is also available in: French, German

Turning Back Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and chronicler of the DAX voyage. The DAX sails upon the sunny beach of Cape Hatt, Nunavut to make adjustments to the sailboat.

August 10 - Cape Hatt, Nunavut

This morning as usual Martin was trying to fix problems with the engine. He was panting and moving around and I felt that it was something really bad. What will happen now? When we tried sailing out of the bay (on my watch) Bengt yelled: “it is shallow, turn portside!” Bang! I turned off the engine and we slid off the sandbank. The engine was overheating. It reeked of burnt fumes and our cooling system did not work. Martin dove down to the engine room and worked. After a while everything seemed fine but two hours later the same thing happened again. At this point, with the motor overheating, we left the anchorage at Cape Hatt. We tugged the DAX for five hours with the dingy. Fixing a motor in open water is very tricky.

So far all the difficulties that have occurred on the DAX have mainly been fixed by Martin. He has the most knowledge and, as much as Bengt and I tried to contribute, he chooses to do things himself. I think it is getting to be too much for him.

This post is also available in: French, German

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