A triumphant viewing of polar bears

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Posted August 2, 2017 by Adrian Brijbassi in Cruises

Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor

ON BOARD THE OCEAN ENDEAVOUR, NEAR RESOLUTION ISLAND, NUNAVUT — The Arctic is so remote and unpredictable, the success of any sightseeing voyage can rest on a single decision. Midway through this year’s Heart of the Arctic expedition — a 12-night Adventure Canada cruise through northern Quebec, eastern Nunavut and Greenland — Stefan Kindberg and Matthew James Swan made a fateful choice that not only rescued a day from disappointment but fulfilled the promise of their journey.

After travelling approximately 70 nautical miles — over the course of 15 hours — and not seeing any vivid wildlife, Kindberg, a Swedish polar explorer with more than three decades of experience, spotted with his binoculars two masses of floating ice in the waters west of Baffin Bay. Both ice packs were in the opposite direction of where the Ocean Endeavour was headed. Having exhausted their search earlier in the day, the ship found itself behind schedule for its next destination. A convincing reason needed to be provided in order to change course.

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A mother leads her polar bear cub closer to the Ocean Endeavour cruise ship during an extraordinary viewing in Nunavut. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Kindberg, however, had no evidence of what the tour group — which included 170 passengers who had paid thousands for the cruise — might see other than what his past experience told him. His first call was to Swan, Adventure Canada’s director of business development and the expedition leader on this trip.

“We had gone through this big stretch of ice and your percentage of finding wildlife there is very high,” Swan says as he recounted the moments leading to his decision to alter course while the ship was sailing near Resolution Island, a desolate speck of territory in the Hudson Strait. “We had done 15 hours in and around the ice and we hadn’t found anything and that is extremely unlikely. We were playing a numbers game, a percentage, we thought it was a good chance based on our readings that we would see something and that’s why we were in that area. Usually, you don’t rely on gut feelings because you do those calculated figures.”

Pursuing Polar Bears In the Arctic Wild

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Polar bears traipse across pack ice as they search for food near Resolution Island, which is about 150 kilometres (95 miles) directly north of Labrador. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Upon consulting with Kindberg, Swan was initially hesitant. He looked through his own binoculars and was “unsure” if Kindberg’s hunch was right. Still, he trusted the experience of his staff and convinced the ship’s captain to turn around and head for the pack ice closest to the island.

“The ice was perfect for seeing bears,” Kindberg points out. “There were a number of floating pieces of pack ice in the water and they were close to land. That’s when you have a good chance for the bears.”

The Ocean Endeavour sailed along the edge of the ice section for many minutes and it looked like Kindberg’s premonition would not bring the desired result. As the 137-metre-long (450 feet) ship drifted closer to the end of the ice and toward open water, a spotter on the top deck sighted two off-white dots on a floe. The passengers were notified and the action began as feet clambered to the exterior decks.

What transpired was a sighting of a polar bear mother and approximately 18-month-old cub that Kindberg calls an “AA-plus viewing” and what several others on the ship said was as good a polar bear encounter in the wild as they had ever witnessed.

Those onlookers included Margaret Atwood, the literary icon who was on her 17th journey to the Arctic with Adventure Canada. “To view polar bears that close is exceptionally rare,” she says of one of the premier highlights of the 2017 expedition.

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Polar bears’ senses are heightened as they spot something unusual in the waters — an expedition ship filled with cruise passengers. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The polar bears spent more than 30 minutes exploring the ice alongside the Ocean Endeavour. They sniffed the air, scenting the humans and likely the food being carried aboard the ship. Inching closer, the mother led the cub to a floe directly in front of the ship’s hull. At one point, the mother bear charged toward the vessel, coming as close as 100 feet.

“I can almost guarantee that mother had not seen a ship before. It was holding its ground, which was amazing to see,” says George Sirk, a naturalist from British Columbia and a member of the Adventure Canada staff for this expedition.

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Days prior to sighting the polar bears on water, Adventure Canada guests caught a view of another member of Ursus maritimus on the shores of Akpatok Island. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The ship moved away from the ice and the bears ended up diving into the waters of the strait, heading to another floe as they searched for their main source of food, seals.

“Seeing bears in their natural environment, which is on the ice, is an exceptional experience, and one that is very unique,” Kindberg says.

The passengers were thrilled. Some were in tears at the sight. Photographers on board were ecstatic with the images. More than one guest named the experience as the moment the trip demonstrated its value. Even though the passengers had seen two other bears on land just a few days earlier, those viewings were brief and from a farther distance. Not this time — proving the Arctic can be unpredictable in fantastic ways, too.

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A gull is fortunate to be out of striking distance as it passes overhead two polar bears on pack ice off of Nunavut. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

On a day whose Zodiac-propelled excursions into land and sea were wiped out by high winds and waves, disappointment was sticking to the ship. It wasn’t the only day whose itinerary was impacted by the weather. Adventure Canada relies heavily on technology to map out an itinerary that can bring passengers to the wildlife and natural scenery they travelled far distances to see. So it seemed fitting, if not poetic, that on a sea expedition to view wildlife who survive largely by instinct a decision based on gut feeling rescued the day.

“I trusted Stefan. I’ve been working with him for 15 years and he helped me when I was becoming expedition leader. I knew he wouldn’t have called me up in that situation if it wasn’t something important,” Swan says of the decision to shift course, resulting in the epic viewing. “When I came up and saw every one of our passengers outside, taking in this amazing sight, I was just so happy we could bring this to them. I didn’t realize it myself, but I was on the verge of tears.”

MORE ABOUT ADVENTURE CANADA’S HEART OF THE ARCTIC CRUISE

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Polar bears jump into the Hudson Strait after encountering the Adventure Canada expedition ship, leaving passengers with an experience of a lifetime. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Dates and Itinerary: The 2017 expedition (July 18-30) included a charter flight that departed from Ottawa. The planned flight to Iqaluit had to change its destination to Northern Quebec because of the accumulation of ice in Frobisher Bay, the location of the Nunavut capital. The 12-night cruise travelled through the archipelago near southern Baffin Island, with stops at Inuit communities, Zodiac outings to view wildlife and scenery, and a range of extraordinary on-board programming that included lectures from leading scientists and subject-matter experts. It culminated with multiple nights in Greenland, exploring its capital, Nuuk, and the spectacular landscape dominated by fjords and the nation’s immense icecap. 

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Passengers gather on the top deck of the Ocean Endeavour to view amazing sights on the Adventure Canada Heart of the Arctic voyage. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)


Website: www.adventurecanada.com/trip/heart-arctic-2017
Cost: 2017 Fares, including charter flights from Ottawa and back to Toronto at the end of the cruise, ranged from $6,190 to $17,790 USD.

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A polar bear mother stares down an expedition ship as it cruises through the waters of the Canadian Arctic. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

More Coverage: Vacay.ca will publish more coverage from this journey in coming weeks.


About the Author

Adrian Brijbassi
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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and his articles are frequently syndicated by the Huffington Post and appear in the Globe & Mail. He makes regular appearances on CTV News, TSN Radio and CJSF Radio, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction, and has visited more than 30 countries. He is also a judge for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and spearheaded the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list that debuted in April 2012.

 
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