We are surrounded by belugas. Hundreds of them fill the water around us, their smooth white skin creating a surreal glow under the twilight-dark surface like sea nymphs on the prowl.
It’s mostly big white whales on the go, but there are some baby belugas, too. They’ve been swimming by us for nearly an hour, making curious passes in smaller breakaway pods, splashing and circling, as we sit in our inflatable zodiac boats, engines off, wondering if this is really happening. At first I fretted this mind-blowing moment would be over too soon. Now I wonder if it will ever end.
Our Intrepid guides are equally gobsmacked, despite most of them working here in the High Arctic for multiple summer seasons. In fact, the Inuit guides who grew up in the far north are just as impressed by this rare display of nature’s majesty.
It’s the tail end of a life-changing day on the southern coast of Devon Island in Nunavut’s Qikiqtaaluk Region, just above Baffin Island at a latitude around 3,500 km north of my Toronto hometown.
With the fog lifting as we approached Powell Inlet, navigating between snow-dusted granite cliffs, there were plans to make landfall for an after-dinner hike. But the scouts spotted a polar bear, so plans changed. And not for the first time today. We actually aren’t even supposed to be anywhere close to here, but I’ll get to that.
We disembarked our expedition ship, the 100-metre Ocean Adventurer, and boarded the zodiacs to go see the bear from a safe distance. Or rather, bears. A mother and two cubs laze on a rock shelf butted up against a scree-covered slope, surrounded by towering cliffs, and looking as if plucked from a child’s picture book.
After watching them watch us for a bit, we cruised over to a rocky island in the middle of the inlet where a couple walruses were cuddling, as they do. Circling the rocks, we discovered a few dozen more swimming, waddling, and cuddling on the other side. Then over in the distance we spotted something weird in the water.
It looked like the sea was boiling. That couldn’t be right, obviously, but it also didn’t make sense that there would be waves since we were in a calm inlet far from open ocean. Approaching, we discovered the wake water was actually the churn of that beluga herd.
What made this chance wildlife encounter even more incredible is that, as I said, we were never supposed to be here. Powell Inlet wasn’t on our itinerary. Our guides had never been here before, either. This was a serendipitous happenstance caused by what had seemed, at the time, to be bad luck. But as we were learning, the most important part of a polar expedition is flexibility.
Our trip was all about following in the footsteps of Franklin, referencing the infamously ill-fated attempt by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage. His 1845 journey resulted in the demise of everyone aboard after their ships, the Terror and Erebus, got trapped in the ice.
Our plan was to track their trail from Greenland across the Davis Straight to Baffin Island, where we’d sail northward–stopping along the way to visit villages, explore fjords and go hiking and kayaking among the glaciers and icebergs–until heading west into the passage.
“Let’s not call it an itinerary. This is the route that we are likely to take,” expedition team leader, Alison Kirk-Lauritsen explained during our first night’s briefing. “What I can guarantee is that we will start in Kangerlussuaq–and I hope to finish in Resolute, but you just saw the ice charts so let’s hope that changes.”
“We have 15 days to get as much out of this trip as possible,” she continued,” “so I ask for your trust. I ask for your trust in knowing that when I say, ‘please rip up your itineraries,’ that I will still give you an amazing voyage. We will go out and do remarkable things, but sometimes those things won’t be what you expect because of ice or wind conditions.
“This is our voyage together, and it will be great,” she accurately promised, “but it cannot necessarily be exactly as planned.”
Indeed, those ice charts we saw the first night did not change for the better. We didn’t make it very far into the passage itself–much less reach our departure destination of Resolute–as we were turned back by sea ice not long after entering Lancaster Sound.
Our captain Nikolai wanted to avoid following too closely in Franklin’s footsteps–not to mention avoiding the fate of two French expeditions recently rescued by Canadian icebreakers after failing to reach Beechey Island. The ship first encountered drift ice around midnight while sailing from Pond Inlet up to the Sound. Reducing speed to three knots, he went as far west as he deemed safe but upon nearing Radstock Bay we reached a three-metre thick ice sheet that proved impenetrable.
But Allie had not only told us about the need to be flexible, she’d demonstrated it earlier with a spur-of-the-moment circumnavigation of Isabella Bay where we, by sheer chance, saw our first narwhals. She now did it again with a decision to let us disembark and spend some time exploring the sea ice, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We can enter a journey with some objectives–and we do–but the way you get there is not necessarily along that path, and that’s some of the beauty of it. That’s what challenges us,” Allie told me later. “I would encourage travellers to come knowing that their expedition team will work hard to give them the very best experience. We want to have the great experiences with you!
“But if we were to rigidly stick to the schedule and we can’t get off the ship because of weather, then it’s time wasted. If we get stuck in ice for five days, that’s time wasted. That’s why you need to be flexible. We can’t control everything up here, this is an expedition. You have to work with the elements–and it’s never a bad thing. You can find experiences everywhere.”
Indeed, while we were walking on water in the middle of the ocean, Allie and the captain were scrapping all their plans for the next few days and whipping up new ones on the fly. The ice in Lancaster Sound was being pushed northwards by the wind so they decided we’d cruise past Maxwell Bay and attempt a nighttime landing somewhere the sea ice didn’t meet the coast. A place called Powell Inlet, a place where we’d soon see so many sea creatures displaying such grace amongst these epic landscapes that our hearts would burst.
And it only happened because of their flexibility, and our trust.
Ready for a bucket-list-ready Arctic experience? Plan a trip with Intrepid Travel.
(All images taken on Intrepid’s Northwest Passage Westbound trip.)