Polar Bears and Walruses

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Sat 26 Jul 2014 14:06

74:31.9N 082:24.5W


So here we are in Lancaster Sound, at the start of the North West Passage.  We are 74.5 degrees North, very likely the furthest North we will reach, unless we go into Resolute Bay, about 10 miles further north. This is what we have come for, and why we have sailed nearly 3500 miles through some difficult seas to get here.

We are anchored in a safe spot in Dundas Harbour on the South side of Devon Island, together with Aventura while we wait for the ice to clear ahead of us so that we can continue our journey.

Our five day passage across from Disko Bay was uneventful, the usual fare of motoring through thick fog or beating  into a Westerly, although this time the wind rarely rose above 20 knots. Motoring through fog with ice around is a strange business, being at the same time really boring and really scary. Icebergs are easy to negotiate as they are picked up on the radar, but the difficulty is the smaller pieces of ice that you come across, usually, but crucially not always associated with the icebergs. Lumps of ice as big as a fridge can come looming out of the fog at you so you have to be alert at all times, staring into the fog, unable to do anything else during your three hour watch.

Nothing else, that is, other than leaping back to take the wheel when the autopilot loses its fix for the umpteenth time. We were not sure whether it was our system playing up, but comparing notes with Aventura they have been experiencing the same syndrome with a different system, so it seems it is something to do with sailing at such high latitudes where the compass is useless.

We have also had the rather odd experience of having to put the ship’s clock back every other day. The lines of longitude are so close together here, that we have been crossing a degree of longitude on every three hour watch, and every fifteen degrees means we have to adjust the clock by one hour. So it was that when I came on watch at midnight a few nights ago, to find the sun blazing dazzlingy over a flat sea, I was not actually looking at the midnight sun, we just hadn’t been adjusting the clock fast enough.

Our arrival in Lancaster Sound occurred in full sunshine, revealing the high snow covered mountains of Bylot Island to the South and Devon Island to the North. The Sound is nearly 60 miles wide at this point, but the air is so clear that both sets of mountains were sharply visible. By this time we were sailing in company with Aventura, so we took the opportunity of taking pictures of each others’ boats against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains.

We had been told that on Devon Island we were likely to see a lot of Arctic wildlife and we have not been disappointed. As we entered Dundas Harbour, John pointed to what we assumed was a piece of ice about a hundred yards away from us. This ice was behaving rather strangely, and it gradually dawned us that this was not ice at all, but the head of a polar bear. It turned to look at us, but then turned away again and carried on swimming out to sea. We called Aventura on VHF as they have a film-maker on board and as they came in they spent an hour or so filming it in the water and then on land. Some people have spent years sailing in these waters and never seen a polar bear, so we felt very privileged. We had just turned away from looking at the bear, when we noticed another swirling in the water, and this time it was a huge walrus, rolling around waving its flippers at us, almost welcoming us to its home.  It turns out that there are lots of walruses here, and we can hear them calling hoarsely to each other across the bay.

Also resident here are a pair of ivory gulls, at least that is what we think they are, almost pure white all over, quite large with a hawklike fantail, and very interested in us. Apparently they only live above 70 degrees North, and this is the first time we have seen them. They have a symbiotic relationship with polar bears, feeding off the remains of kills, and bear poo.

The bay we are anchored in is very sheltered. There are high, dark hills to the West, and a glacier coming into the head of the main inlet. From the boat, it looks as if there is no vegetation at all, but a brief foray ashore yesterday, fully armed with rifle and ammunition which we bought secondhand in Nuuk, revealed that there is in fact a covering of surprisingly varied plant life, including lots of flowers, particularly in sheltered spots in the lee of rocks. There is a deserted settlement just over a low rise in the ground, and we plan to spend more time exploring this and the rest of the area over the next few days, obviously keeping a sharp lookout for polar bears!

Nick on Aventura also bought a secondhand rifle in Nuuk, complete with a one metre bayonet ! As he pointed out, “they do like it up ‘em”. Of course nobody actually wants to use a rifle, but it is pretty much mandatory to carry one when ashore and the rules of engagement are two warning shots first and if you do kill a polar bear the RMCP want to count the empty cartridges.

Today we have woken to flat calm and low cloud and a playful walrus that came for a close inspection of us. Ice to the west of us continues to block progress for the time being so we shall wait and see what develops over the next few days. It is surprisingly warm, with the temperature reaching 12 C yesterday afternoon, so hopefully the thaw will happen quite fast now.