I’m writing this blog from Iqaluit, after a day of travel and transition, following the conclusion of Leg Three of the Sailing to Siku voyage. It was with a tinge of sadness that we left the Arctic Tern to make our respective ways home, although it’s nice to no longer be confined to the cramped sleeping and galley spaces on a 47ft boat. I still have a large bag of suspicious laundry and a lingering taste of sea brine in my mouth, but my feet are firmly planted on shore.
It’s too early for a definitive assessment of the trip but I can offer a few observations from my own perspective. First of all, the biggest impression I got from traveling through this region by boat is its massive scale. After two weeks, we saw only the south-eastern tip of Ellesmere Island, a short stretch of Devon Island and we barely scratched the northern tip of Baffin Island. Even the comparatively ‘tiny’ Bylot Island is positively endless when you’re sailing along its coast at 6 knots.
We saw fewer whales than I’d anticipated. There are tens of thousands of narwhal in the region, as well as healthy populations of beluga and bowhead and reported pods of aggressive orcas, but very few came within sight of our boat. Partly that’s due to the sheer vastness of the waters – there’s lots of room for whales to hide. And perhaps they were avoiding the sound of our motor.
If we saw few whales, there was definitely more ship traffic than we’d anticipated. We encountered several ships over the two weeks of our trip – in Resolute Bay, Admiralty Inlet, Nanisivic, Navy Board Inlet and Pond Inlet. Most were involved in the critically important sealift resupply of Arctic communities, while the ships in Pond Inlet were part of Canadian Navy and U.S. Coast Guard maneuvers/public relations. It’s not a lot of traffic when compared with major shipping routes, but it’s a significant indication of the growing interest in and use of Arctic waters. We were given a tour of the Terry Fox in Nanisivc, with its Polar Class 4 icebreaking capabilities, which allows it to bring supplies to communities that ordinary commercial ships are not qualified to sail in. But as the demand for shipping services grows – and as the reach extends north into increasingly ice-free waters – it will become increasingly important to manage this growth carefully, and ensure that ships adhere to the best and safest practices.
I look forward to seeing the results of the phytoplankton samples that our on-board researcher Sophie took in the middle of Jones and Lancaster Sounds. There’s a lot still to learn about this region, starting at the base of the food chain.
We were graciously received by the people in the communities we visited, starting in Grise Fiord, with a mid-trip stop in Arctic Bay and concluding our leg in Pond Inlet. Many of the most experienced hunters were off on the land (or water), demonstrating their skills in securing abundant food and other necessities in this awe-inspiring environment, but we look forward to returning to continue and build on these initial discussions about future aspirations for the region. And with Vicki Sahanatien now ensconced in WWF’s Iqaluit office, we’ll have opportunities to continue that dialogue.
Lastly, I was impressed and deeply grateful for the skill, hard work and good humour of our crew. Grant, Pascale and Valentine did an outstanding job of keeping us safe and on course. Together with my other ship-mates – Ed, Sophie and Vicki – we collectively fostered a spirit of camaraderie that more than made up for the cramped living quarters and other inconveniences of seafaring on a small boat. Thanks to all of you!