In search of ice whales: Field notes from a research expedition to Creswell Bay, Nunavut (Part I)

Polar bear paw prints
Polar bear prints on the shore of Creswell Bay, Nunavut ©  Paul Galvin

Polar bears, of course, were always on our minds.

To deal with the risk, we set up a rotating system of armed watches throughout the night to survey the area — keeping a close eye for large white bears while listening for blows, vocalizations or sightings of beluga or narwhal.

This was my shift and while tea and jerky may be an odd 3 a.m. snack, it was perfect while I sat there alone in quiet anticipation of seeing some of the world’s most remarkable marine mammals.

And as I sat there drinking tea, a group of narwhal started making their way northward, very close to the shore of Creswell Bay and right past our campsite on the edge of Somerset Island, Nunavut.

Everyone else was asleep, and after taking my notes and photos, I enjoyed watching this group for close to an hour as the sunrise slowly lit up the ochre-covered cliffs.

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My name is Jason Harasimo, WWF-Canada’s associate specialist of Arctic ecosystems, and I manage our long-standing Arctic Species Conservation Fund. This past summer, I joined a ASCF field research team going to Creswell Bay, about a hundred kilometers west of Baffin Island, to obtain baseline data on the Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay beluga and the Baffin Bay narwhal that visit these waters each year.

The goal was to investigate the potential impacts of increasing underwater noise pollution.

Narwhals surfacing near shore with "tusks" out of the water
Narwhal in Creswell Bay, Nunavut © Paul Galvin

Both these populations utilize Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound) — a National Marine Conservation Area on the edge of the Northwest Passage with considerable ship traffic due to Baffinland’s Mary River Iron Mine and Arctic cruises and expeditions — as the primary migratory path to their wintering areas in Baffin Bay, Pikialasorsuaq (North Water Polynya), and Greenland, a protected area.

The bays and estuaries of Somerset Island, 25,000-square-kilometre part of the Arctic Archipelago with seasonal hunting camps but no permanent settlements, serve as important summering areas. Cutting into the eastern-central section of the island, Creswell Bay is a natural haven for marine wildlife — large rivers drain Somerset’s expansive watersheds, spilling nutrient-rich sediment across the ocean floor which supports crucial prey of marine mammals.

Beluga surfacing near a snow-free Arctic shoreline
Beluga surfacing in Creswell Bay, NU © Paul Galvin

Shaping the coast of the northern entry to the bay is Fury Point, named after the historic ship once commanded by William Parry and later abandoned by Henry Hoppner here in 1825. (Many relics of the HMS Fury are still strewn along the shore.) The deeper waters of Creswell’s mouth are separated by Idlout Point, a narrow peninsula jetting from the south, leaving only the 3-kilometre-wide Sarvak Channel providing shallow passage further into the bay.

I knew Creswell was going to be a special experience. Not only would this be my first time seeing a beluga or narwhal in person, I’d have a chance to learn more about them from an incredibly knowledgeable team: Greg O’Cory-Crowe, a renowned researcher of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University; Paul Galvan, an ornithologist from California; Maha Ghazal, a longtime friend of mine from our time living in the Baffin Island community of Pangnirtung now working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; and her colleague Mark Gillespie, an experienced DFO field technician.

Man in large tent drinking tea
WWF-Canada’s Jason Harasimo at camp in Creswell Bay. NU © Paul Galvin

Meeting at the Polar Continental Shelf Program office in the community of Resolute, where equipment and supplies were staged for our departure, we had a couple days to finish last-minute preparations, calculate weight loads with the pilots, and determine how many twin-otter flights we required to get ourselves and our gear to the field site.

We arrived at camp on the western shores of Creswell on June 26th and wasted no time setting up: a tent for equipment like hydrophones and drones, a cook tent with a Coleman stove, biscuits, meats and pasta; and our individual sleep tents. Soon everything was in its right place — now we just needed the whales to arrive.

We took the downtime to prepare two 12-foot zodiacs with 25-horsepower motors and visit a couple of nearby islands to familiarize ourselves with the area and, of course, scope for whales, beginning with Umiavinitalik. It was covered in chalky white limestone and riddled with whale bones. Loons and Eider ducks occupied the shores Bearded seals constantly watched us strangers from afar.

We also spent some time exploring the Kuksik river on Creswell Bay’s northern shore, a major waterway that has carved monumental cliffs and canyons out of the rocks. We excitedly spotted large schools of Arctic char near its mouth, and further upriver watched four muskox graze until, without much notice, two of the larger muskoxen ran full speed and headfirst into each other. The crack echoed.

Muskoxen grazing in the distance
Muskoxen grazing on Somerset Island, NU © Paul Galvin

Upon returning to camp, we spotted our first whales. The evening was spent watching and documenting every movement of beluga. Drones were used to capture what couldn’t be seen at sea level — huddling over the laptop to witness the incredible activity occurring just offshore was exciting.

Over the next two days, wind kept us near our camp. A hydrophone was deployed to continuously listening for whale vocalizations while we spent a lot of time tying down our tents or, in some cases, putting them back up. Mark, Paul and I ventured up the Union River to Stanwell-Fletcher Lake. We watched a pair of yellow-throated loons with a new baby, and spent some time fishing the river, pulling up beautiful Arctic Char for meals.

When the wind finally allowed, we boated back out to the islands. Surveying the areas and identifying whale bones, including a vertebra from a young bowhead. Fascinated by bowheads, I hoped for a chance to see them, but this is a narwhal and beluga study. Stay focused! And it paid off.

We spotted narwhal, complete with their tusks in the air, huge blows and lots of activity. Greg and Mark ventured out on an inflatable kayak and a hydrophone in hopes of linking drone footage with the vocalizations from the dip hydrophone. At the time, there were a lot of whales in the water, and our luck prevailed when a group swam directly next to their kayak, an experience I’m sure both will remember for a long time.

Stay tuned for Part II

NOTE: Narwhal vocalizations come up in video at mid-point © Greg O’Cory-Crowe