December 28, 2012 6:00 pm

A sub-zero safari

High in the Canadian Arctic, a firm set up to assist film crews and scientists is now leading tourists on wildlife expeditions
Exploring the towering icebergs at the Canadian Arctic©David De Vleeschauwer

Exploring the towering icebergs

I am wearing three pairs of socks, three shirts, a sweater and an expedition jacket, but I am still freezing. The Arctic wind slashes against my face as we ride east towards our base camp on qamutiks, traditional Inuit wooden sledges pulled by snow scooters. For five hours our small group glides over the frozen ice of Eclipse Sound and along the shores of Sirmilik National Park. I bury my head deep into the warmth of my fluffy parka.

We had set off that morning from Pond Inlet, a small town on the northeastern shores of Baffin Island in Canada’s Nunavut province. Getting there from Ottawa took 10 hours and three flights, the final one on a small propeller plane decorated with a large picture of a polar bear.

Pond Inlet has just over 1,000 inhabitants, mostly Inuit but with a few incoming “southerners”. There are a couple of small hotels, two shops and no bars (alcohol sales are restricted or forbidden in many villages in Nunavut, the rules decided by local plebiscite).

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There, our group of eight was met by staff from Arctic Kingdom Polar Expeditions, the Canadian company that has arranged our week-long trip. To call it a tour operator would be misleading – for as well as tourists, the company works for television and film crews, scientists, and professional photographers and divers, helping them access the far north. Previous clients include National Geographic, ABC, Disneynature and the BBC. The company was founded by Graham Dickson, a keen diver who, in 1990, began exploring below the Arctic ice, learning how to deal with the extreme conditions and even building special cages to view walrus underwater. In 1999, he turned his hobby into a business, specialising in helping film crews and scientists get under water, but quickly branching out into on-land expeditions, which now make up 90 per cent of its work.

A couple of days before our arrival, Arctic Kingdom’s team had set up base camp out on the sea ice, some 50 miles from Pond Inlet. Covering that distance on the qamutiks is slow but unforgettably scenic. We pass first along the frozen channel between Baffin and Bylot islands before emerging into the open ocean, a dazzling desert of ice, flat but for several towering icebergs in the far distance.

For a while, the only colours are the white ice and the deep blue sky, but eventually some yellow specks appear on the horizon. The qamutiks skate closer and the dots grow into a dozen tents, our otherworldly home for the next five nights.

As strange as it might seem, we are here on safari – hoping to see polar bears, narwhals, belugas, walruses, flocks of migrating birds and harp, bearded and ring seals. The trips take place in June, as spring begins to turn to summer, when there is the best chance of seeing whales gathering at the edge of the ice pack.

Inside my bright yellow “Arctic Oven” tent there is enough space to stand upright and there are real beds. The tents are elevated above the ice on wooden boards and there’s even a small heater – though there is 24-hour light at this time of year, temperatures can still plunge after 10pm when the sun sinks low and skims along the horizon. A larger tent nearby contains a hot shower and a flushing toilet, while in the middle of the camp is a big kitchen and mess tent. After a month on the ice, the camp is dismantled and removed; no traces are left behind.

Map of Baffin island

On a windless evening, Mike Bedell, our charismatic expedition leader (and an accomplished wildlife photographer), takes us to the floe edge, where the ice meets the open water, for the first time. It’s a 15-minute snow scooter ride away from the base camp and once there, Bedell drops a hydrophone into the water so we can see what animals are nearby. For the next two hours, we listen to a succession of strange noises from bearded seals and whales, while gazing out across the sea. There is whistling, clicking and something that almost sounds like singing. It sounds alien but there is also something immensely calming about it. “You know, it is a virus,” says Heiner Kubny, a guest from Switzerland, who has travelled more than 50 times to the polar regions. “When you have it, once you’re bitten, it keeps drawing you back to the Arctic and Antarctic.”

Now and again a flock of elegant eider goose or murres fly by, or even pop up from under the floe edge where they are feeding. Behind us are the spectacular cliffs of Bylot Island, where these birds nest in great numbers. The water is so rich here that it’s not only birds that like to hang out around the floe edge but also numerous species of whale, from beluga and narwhal to orca and bowhead.

Next, Bedell hauls a two-man kayak into the water and sets off to explore the floe edge with one of our group. Dry suits are provided so the more adventurous, such as David Innerdale from Hong Kong, can go snorkelling in the ice-cold waters. “An unforgettable experience!” he says later that evening, when we are back at base camp and warming up with some steaming soup.

close encounter with a bowhead whale©David De Vleeschauwer

A close encounter with a bowhead whale

The weather changes quickly up here. At night cold winds rattle my tent but, a couple of hours later, there is bright sunshine that has us stripping off our down jackets. The glare from the ice means that within days I have adopted the traditional look for summer tourists in the Arctic: a deep tan with panda eyes, thanks to my sunglasses.

It’s a thrilling moment to spot a polar bear in the wild for the first time. We are heading back from the floe edge one morning when we spot a huge male moving quietly away, occasionally stopping to look back at us. “He is not far from our base camp,” whispers our guide. It is comforting to know that a husky is guarding camp and that our Inuit guides always carry guns. Just as on African safaris, wandering off alone is not an option.

Another day we set off to climb a pinnacle-shaped iceberg trapped in the frozen sea ice. “This might be your only chance to stand on an iceberg that is thousands of years old,” says Bedell. But then the floe edge calls again – some narwhals have been spotted. Unfortunately, the brown silhouettes with their legendary ivory tusks disappear quickly in the still ocean and nobody is fast enough to snap a picture.

tent©David De Vleeschauwer

A tent with a view

On my last day in this frozen world, the sky is covered in eerie black clouds; the air is cold and the top layer of ice looks and sounds like the crust of crème brûlée. Back on the floe edge, Bedell entertains us by trying to attract whales while making wide arm gestures. “Oh rise up, mighty Leviathans! Rise up!” he calls. Then it happens.

A giant bowhead whale is feeding just below the pack ice, right next to the edge where we are standing. Every 10 minutes it sticks its massive head above water to gasp some air, while looking at us inquisitively. We hear its loud breathing and can even smell its fishy breath. Everyone is awestruck, deadly silent.

Arctic guides©David De Vleeschauwer

Two of the guides

Even for the seasoned Arctic travellers of our group, being so close to a whale of this size, and watching not from a boat but the fragile edge of the melting spring ice, is a first. The encounter more than makes up for the anticlimax of our brief encounter with the narwhals, who are usually more easily seen. Baffin Island is the best spot in the world to witness these rare animals, but their annual migration appears to be later than usual. “Maybe next year?” I find myself thinking. Kubny was right – I must have caught the polar virus.

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Debbie Pappyn was a guest of Arctic Kingdom (www.arctickingdom.com). An eight-day Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari like the one described costs from around C$10,185 (£6,333) per person; return flights from Ottawa to Pond Inlet cost around C$3,256 (£2,024). The writer flew to Canada as a guest of British Airways (www.ba.com), which has daily flights from London to Toronto and Montreal starting at £483. For more on visiting Nunavut and Canada in general, see www.nunavuttourism.com and www.canada.travel

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