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Where the ice meets the open sea

March/April 2011 | by Claus Vogel

Travelling by snow – mobile and qamutiq you and your guide venture out onto the sea ice off the coast of Baffin Island for a day’s outing. Four hours and 30 kilometres later you reach what seems to be the edge of the world — a seemingly barren world where the thick sea ice meets the dark open waters of Baffin Bay. Within seconds the ice fog lifts to reveal a habitat teeming with life. Thousands of eider and long-tailed ducks dive for food while the magical chorus of bowhead whales pierce through the stillness of this incredible environment. Fresh tracks from a wandering polar bear and her cub meander close by, sending tingles running along your spine. You are at the Arctic floe edge.

The floe edge is a dynamic environment where the actions of the wind, tides, currents and global temperatures constantly shape and reshape its boundaries each winter and spring. In the past the edge of the ice appeared fifty or so kilometres off shore while more recently it seems to form closer and closer to land. Regardless of its position, the floe edge is a crucial place where local hunters gather to socialize and share bannock, tea and fresh meat while patiently waiting for seal, walrus or whales to surface. It also forms an important habitat for countless of marine organisms who depend on the open waters and ice for their survival.

These organisms congregate here en-masse thanks to the rays of the spring sun that penetrate through the icy surface of the water. Suddenly, billions upon billions of microscopic plankton burst to life. This influx of energy triggers a chain of events that many naturalists describe as one of the greatest spectacles in the Arctic. A seemingly endless array of migratory seabirds and ducks join seal, bowhead whales and large pods of narwhal and beluga to feed in these nutrientrich waters. Following close by are polar bear and Arctic fox who closely track these marine animals from the ice.

Standing at the edge of the ice, and surrounded by a rich symphony of sound and soft pastel coloured skies, you begin to scan the horizon for more signs of life. A flock of three hundred king eider flutter by while telltale spray from a pod of beluga signal their return to the surface. This flurry of activity almost distracts you from spotting the twometre spiralled ivory tusk of a narwhal as it slices through the calm waters of this remarkable polar ecosystem.

Claus has travelled extensively throughout the Arctic. For more images and stories please check out his website at www.tradewindsphoto.ca