The Wild Beauty of Eclipse Sound

    Text and photos by Natalie Gillis

    On the most calm and peaceful of days it can be deafeningly quiet at the edge of the ice, with only the gentle flutter of feathers against the wind to break the dense silence.

    Spring on the Sea Ice

    During the 1920s, Canadian artist Lawren Harris travelled to the Eastern Arctic where he fell in love with the stark and quiet landscape of North Baffin and all the contrast it provided to the industrialized and hurried life of the southern cities. The region, which has long been a homeland to one of Canada’s most innovative and resilient cultures, has since become a destination for artists, adventurers, and those with a healthy appreciation for exploring the natural world.

    A narwhal briefly coming up for air before descending below the ice we stood upon; these mythical creatures once thought to be no more than myth are very much at home in the wild.

    As winter descends on North Baffin, the temperature of the polar waters surrounding Canada’s largest island will slowly begin to drop, and as the salt water falls below -1.8 degrees Celsius, the ocean will begin to freeze. The process of salt water becoming ice is quite different than that of freshwater due to its increased density; freezing the ocean is a slow and intricate process, and owing to the influence of the dynamic winds, tides and currents, the sea ice develops a unique character that varies substantially from year to year.

    By spring, the sea ice has grown to a variable depth of around three metres in Eclipse Sound and for those lucky enough to be able to venture out onto it, the quality of that ice is paramount. The floating sea ice is what keeps life suspended over thousands of metres of dark ocean depths. It dictates the best times for hunting and travel and provides a navigable highway to access spectacular concentrations of Arctic wildlife.

    Heavy from a dense feeding on a freshly caught seal, this bear rolled onto his side to fall into a deep slumber for several hours, occasionally waking up to stretch before falling back asleep.

    Depending on the year, polar bears can routinely be found wandering the expansive ice, endlessly searching for their next meal. The dark silhouette of a seal resting on the ice is a common sight, where mammals claw tirelessly at the surface to keep a small breathing hole from freezing over for the duration of the winter. Foxes in their pristinely white coats can be found scavenging, while by early spring comes the return of over 70 species of birds to the adjacent Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

    Where Eclipse Sound spills into Baffin Bay, the sea ice abruptly halts to meet the open ocean, forming what is known as the floe edge, colloquially referred to as the line of life. It is at this rich ecotone where upwelling currents and algae growing beneath the ice supports an incredible diversity of marine life. A variety of seals, the occasional bowhead whale, and the mythical and elusive narwhal can be found lingering at the edge, waiting for the summer breakup to arrive so they might reach their feeding and calving grounds deep in the fiords of Baffin Island.

    Adding to the surreal nature of the frozen environment, the vast landscapes and enormous concentrations of wildlife are illuminated at every hour of the day by the unsetting midnight sun. The light in the Arctic falls like nowhere else on Earth; a special mix of atmospheric conditions tends to refract the light travelling through the bitter cold air, causing the landscape to become illuminated in a crisp, clear wash that words can hardly describe. While the spring temperatures can shift slightly as the sun rises and falls on the horizon, the difference can be almost unperceivable at the height of spring. Free from any diurnal obligations, life on the ice under the midnight sun affords a unique freedom from daily rhythms; time passes as it will and loses its own respect on the ice.

    Coming back to town after being out under the midnight sun feels like being woken up from an incredibly good dream. Being able to experience the vividly powerful wildlife and endlessly breathtaking landscapes is the kind of feeling that stays with one forever. While these photographs will never be able to fully express the experience of life on the ice, they try to touch upon the wild beauty that exists out there.