At the Floe Edge – In Search of the Unicorn of the Sea

    Narwhal are the main attraction at the Pond Inlet floe edge each spring. © Karine Genest (3)

    The sun is up, slowly circling the landscape, a gentle dip towards the mountains around 3am. It hasn’t set for six weeks and darkness won’t touch this land until early August, another six weeks away.

    At 72 degrees north longitude, 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, a small group of travellers gather along the ‘sinaaq,’ an area where the land fast ice, the ‘tuvaq,’ meets the open ocean.  It is also known as the ‘floe edge’.

    This sunlight touches water so blue that it melts into the sky.  The only sign of the horizon are flocks of Arctic birds — thick-billed murres, kittiwakes, guillemots, eider ducks — bobbing along the water while seals poke their heads out, curious and wary. Inuk guides relax on their snowmobiles, answering typical tourist questions and keeping tabs on the community radio, listening for wildlife sightings and maybe a bit of gossip.

    A few travellers relax in folding chairs, set hopefully not too close to the edge, sharp white line where the land fast ice meets the open ocean. Others gather around the soup tent, snacking, shedding their parkas in the sun and waiting. Hydrophones, underwater microphones, occasionally break the envelope of silence, picking up the bleeps and whirrs of seals and whales echo locating prey. The group eavesdrops on marine conversations and peers out into the deep blue nothing.

    For all this nothing, the sinaaq is a very busy place. This is the main attraction in spring and early summer. After a long, dark winter, the sea ice begins to move; east of Bylot Island the ice pack begins to open in mid-May. Large floes peel off and are pulled into the current of Baffin Strait. They are flushed south, down the east coast of Baffin Island towards Davis Strait and a slow melt. This leaves a line of thick ice hard up against the water, a platform for hunting, travelling or taking pictures.

    As the ice retreats, sunlight penetrates the Arctic waters stimulating the growth of algae which, in turn, feeds plankton, tiny shrimp-like organisms that are the base of the Arctic food chain. Upwellings and currents stir and disperse this mix of marine food, making the retreating ice edge an extremely productive feeding grounds for marine and bird life.  Arctic cod and capelin, small sardine-like fish, feed on the plankton, and they in turn are food for beluga whales, seals and narwhal. These marine mammals then become food for polar bears and humans.

    For centuries for the Tununirmiut, the Inuit peoples of northern Baffin Island, the floe edge is a tradition, a culture. They have frequented the sinaaq each spring, hunting narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales. Since their Thule ancestors swept across the
    Arctic in pursuit of the bowhead whale one thousand years ago, the Inuit have had a complex relationship with this frozen ocean. As the climate cooled, they focused more on narwhal hunting and winter seal hunting techniques, patiently camped out by seal breathing holes.

    Less than two centuries ago, European and American whalers and traders joined them on the floe edge, in search of baleen and whale oil, luxury items across the ocean. They were eventually replaced by the Hudson’s Bay Company who added fox furs to their list of luxury items before that market fell out as well. Most recently, international travellers and photographers have joined this congregation of humans, whales, birds and bears. For six weeks each spring, travellers spend over ten thousand dollars each to reach this thin line of ice. Over the years, this ice, the floe edge itself has become the luxury item. ‘Experience’ is the trade good of today.

    At first glance, one would not necessarily recognize Pond Inlet as an international trade centre. However, all this activity starts in this small Inuit community of 1,500 people, known as Mittimalik in Inuktitut, which means ‘Where Mittima Lies,’ although no one really says who Mittima was or where he lies. It sits perched on the northern edge of Baffin Island.  Rolling hills and small rivers speckle the landscape broken only by trails of ATV dust and the bounce of a few foxes and loose dogs. To the north, 25 kilometres across the inlet, stand the rugged peaks of Bylot Island and Sirmilik, (’Place of Glaciers’) National Park. It is really one of the prettiest spots in Canada, maybe the world.

    Activity spreads out from the Northern and the Co-op stores in the centre of town. Supplies are purchased and trucked down the hill to the coast. Red rose tea bags, pilot biscuits, beef jerky, smokes, bullets, some packets of Tang, all the necessities of life, along with countless gerry cans and a 45-gallon drum of gas or two.

    Down the hill, we’re back in the real north: a slushy, muddy parking lot. Weary, squeaky trucks and new ATVs zoom back and forth on land, readying supplies for a motley collection of snowmobiles and qamutiit, Inuit-style sleds on the sea ice. It has the distinct feel of an open-air Arctic stock market. Inuit guides and hunters tie down their sled-loads, jump over cracks in the ice and discuss the latest snow­mobile repairs. Tourists watch wide-eyed, occasionally offering to help.

    Plywood boxes, called ‘iglutaq,’ are soon secured on top of some of the qamutiit, transforming this freighting sled into ‘luxury’ transportation to the floe edge. Some of these are lined with caribou skins and blue foam mats; others have cushioned seats bolted inside. It’s a long ride to the sinaaq.

    There are two floe edges near the community: the Pond Inlet floe edge, around 90 kilometres to the east; and Navy Board, some 200 kilometres to the northwest.  Most traffic heads east; it’s a shorter trip and a longer ice edge. The route is easier this year; there’s rough ice up by Navy Board they say. Folks who’ve been up there say it’s a beautiful spot, maybe more productive than the other floe edge. A camp is being set up for Leonardo DiCaprio’s film this year.

    Tour companies and local hunters are staging here. Camp supplies and people are spread out among several qamutiit. Sheattie Tagak gives orders to his young crew, a mix of family and friends, assembling camps for both Arctic Kingdom’s groups and his own. There’s a real status that comes with access to contracts and equipment.

    Sheattie Tagak relaxes with a cup of tea and waits for narwhal at the floe edge. © Karine Genest (3)
    Sheattie Tagak relaxes with a cup of tea and waits for narwhal at the floe edge.© Karine Genest (3)

    Traditionally, the head of a household, the lead hunter at the floe edge, was called the ‘isumataq’.  He made the decisions about camp locations, preferred hunting spots and even placement of hunters along the floe edge. As the Tununirmiut transitioned from camps to community, the ‘isumataq’ position changed, maybe disappeared for a bit.  Down on the beach, it sure seems alive in the tourism industry.  Either way, Sheattie’s a busy and happy man.

    As Sheattie’s troops herd tourists, hunters and helpers get ready for the narwhal hunt, travelling a lot lighter than the tour companies. They need to keep their footprints small out on the floe edge as they quietly wait for whales to appear.

    The tour groups, cameras tucked in their parkas to keep batteries warm, lurch and slide their way towards Mount Herodier, the first landmark on their way to the sinaaq.

    Whoosh! It is the sound of this dive that stirs the group.  The sharp expelling of air as whales surface to breathe slices the crisp Arctic air. The visitor stirs the group into a quiet, shuffling frenzy, ‘rushing’ for their cameras, ‘rushing’ to the edge for a view without disturbing the whales. The floe edge transforms from a chilled all-inclusive lodge to ‘fireman’s drill’ in slow motion. On ‘sinaaq’ time.

    Dark speckled backs surface again, breathing holes whooshing once again. It is a pod of narwhal, the star attraction of the floe edge. The Inuks motion for everyone to keep it down but their attention is now focused on the whales as well. Sheattie stands by the ice edge, watching the whales approach. A line of tripods forms beside him as the whale surface once more.

    Tusks soon appear as the narwhal surge along the water.  For the most part, only the males sport the narwhal’s characteristic tusk, a long tooth that spirals out in front of them.  Twenty or so bulls, each around 1,000 kilograms, head straight for the group. This is what every traveller, every guide has been waiting for. A close encounter with the ‘unicorn of the sea’. A true luxury.