The massive bulk of the bowhead whale floats in a crack in the ice, barely more than an arm’s length away. It lets out a long lingering breath, then slips away to its life beneath the ice. I’m left on the floe edge, where the ice meets the sea. I’m standing on metre-thick sea ice, about ten kilometres beyond the tip of Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic. Once the whale has slipped away, the scenery looks like the Arctic pictured so often, a vast white waste, devoid of life. But moments such as this remind you that the life is there, all around you, if you look for it.
Sometimes it teems at the floe edge, the most productive part of the marine environment, thanks to nutrients melting out of the ice. Moments after the whale submerged, some thick-billed murres popped up from under the ice, looking vaguely affronted as they realized they had company, and scooted off across the water, murmuring to themselves. Another few minutes wait brought a pod of narwhals, their gentle sighs announcing their presence before their mottled backs were visible among the pack ice. We dangled an underwater microphone, and heard the eerie descant whistle of the bearded seal.
Walking across the land, the purple saxifrage was in flower in patches not covered by snow. An arctic hare fed amongst the flowers, apparently oblivious to the fact that his white fur afforded him scant camouflage on the greening tundra. Lemmings scampered off at our approach in a small river valley, though they should have been more concerned about the gyrfalcons nesting in a cleft in the cliffs above.
Further up the valley, piles of rocks encrusted with sod – these were the homes of Inuit for thousands of years, as they harvested the bounty of the floe edge. Bowhead skulls integrated into the structure of one sod house made a tangible symbol of the success of their continued relationship with the land and sea here.
I’m here to bring the life of the Arctic back with me, in photos, videos and stories, to help people worldwide appreciate that the Arctic is not an empty wasteland, but a place where life exists in cracks in the ice, in folds of tundra, in crevices in cliffs, and in the communities that grew up around the places where life was most abundant.