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Beechey Island: Mystery & Historical Monuments in the High Arctic

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Beechey Island in Canada's high Arctic is a small island rich in history and a favorite landing for Quark Expeditions passengers. Part of the Canadian Arctic archipelago of Nunavut, it's actually a peninsula connected to the larger Devon Island. The peninsula was named for famed explorer Sir William Beechey and is a stop on several of our expeditions including In the Footsteps of Franklin, Northwest Passage: Franklin's Legend, and Epic High Arctic: Baffin Island Explorer.

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Beluga Whales Parade & Play in Cunningham River

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High above the Arctic Circle, the inlet at the mouth of the river running through the barren tundra on Somerset Island, Nunavut, comes alive each summer. Pods of hundreds of beluga whales, from the air, resemble something out of a science fiction movie.

Where to Spot Beluga Whales

It's an almost unbelievable sight: close to 2,000 majestic white belugas, nicknamed "sea canaries" for their high-pitched whistles and clicking, play and parade for visitors at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, a beluga whale watching hotspot.

Belugas are an Arctic whale species, distinct in their white color and absence of a dorsal fin. They live in the Arctic and subarctic waters along the northern coasts of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway and Greenland. Though their habitat of choice is certainly isolated, belugas are social and playful creatures with few natural predators.

Cunningham Inlet, at Somerset Island, Nunavut, is one of the best places on earth to watch belugas, which return every summer and stay until August. Whale watchers can get up close and personal with the creatures, often within mere feet while standing on the shoreline. They pay no mind to their snap-happy, camera-toting visitors – in fact, many even put on a show for their human friends.

 

What makes Cunningham Inlet such a hotspot for beluga whales? They come to mate, raise their young and bask in the Arctic midnight sun, but researcher David St. Aubin discovered a more compelling attraction for the wales. St. Aubin spent decades traveling back and forth from Cunningham Inlet to his work in the south and other research projects in the tropics. He was the first to document that a whale could moult and that this was the reason for the belugas’ attraction to Cunningham Inlet. Every July, he noted, they came to rub their old, yellowed skin in the shallows of the inlet, revealing the snow-white epidermis beneath. Belugas have incredibly thick skin, about ten times thicker than that of dolphins.

Experts estimate that approximately 72,000 to 144,000 belugas live in Canadian waters, between the Beaufort Sea in the western Arctic, Baffin Bay in the high Arctic, the eastern Arctic waterways including Hudson Bay, and in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

In summer, belugas gather for several weeks in estuaries, where a river and an ocean meet, and congregate in the warmer, shallow waters. In winter, they must stay with the open water, keeping ahead of shifting ice in order to maintain access to air.

Viewing belugas at Cunningham Inlet is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially since they travel such great distances in deep water each spring and fall.  Some migrations take the whales over 2000km, diving deep and often – typically up to 800 metres – for food.

Belugas arrive at Cunningham Inlet as soon as the first ice breaks, which is usually around the second week of July, and stay until mid-August. You'll see plenty of mothers with their newborn or yearling calves as well as a juvenile, who seems to serve as an attendant to the young family. 

Research into beluga biology and behaviors continues at Cunningham Inlet, through the non-profit Arctic Watch Beluga Foundation. On top of scientific research, the foundation has created a unique research program for young adults, which invites young adults including Inuit youth from Nunavut to participate in research conducted by Mystic Aquarium.

Beluga watching from the shores of the Cunningham River, whether for research, photography, or recreation, is a unique and joyful experience. Our 10-day Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge expedition gives you ample time and opportunity to sit alongside these incredible creatures and observe them in their natural Arctic habitat, just a 15-minute walk from the lodge.

Contact us to learn more about beluga watching at the top of the world in 2015 and beyond!

Map from Canadian Geographic; all other images from ArcticWatch.ca by Nansen Weber

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Confessions of a Polar Expedition Team Member

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Have you ever wondered what life is like aboard a Quark Expeditions ship and during polar excursions, beyond what you see and read online and in the travel brochures?

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Low-Light Photography Tips for Epic Northern Lights & Starscape Pics in Polar Regions

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Sam Crimmin, Quark Expeditions Doctor

Imagine vast expanses of sky, free from air and light pollution, with even low magnitude stars are visible to the naked eye and a dizzying array of lights dance overhead. The polar regions are home to some of the most fantastic and original photography opportunities on the planet. However, conditions can make these areas among the most challenging for photographers, as well.

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In the Footsteps of Franklin: Canadian Team Discovers Lost Franklin Expedition Ship

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Feature photo: Bettman/Corbis

After more than 160 years of searching, the Government of Canada announced this week that a Canadian team has located one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic exploration ships, just off King William Island.

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Arctic Quest: Colin Stump recounts his thrilling Arctic adventure

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Written by Colin Stump.

Social media has drowned us in superlatives. Amazing, OMG, fantastic, awesome, etc etc. So, how can I possibly recount a recent adventure in the Arctic without recourse to the same?

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I left my heart in Uummannaq: Greenland with Acacia Johnson

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By: Acacia Johnson

I first watched Uummannaq appear from the sea. In the golden haze of morning light, a single spire loomed silhouetted on the horizon; icebergs filling the ocean ahead. Mountains lined both side of the ship, purple in the glow of dawn, glaciers zigzagging their way towards the sea. As the sun’s rays began to pour over the land, the colorful houses of Uummannaq came into view, perched upon the red stone of the town’s heart-shaped mountain.

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Dreaming in Disko Bay

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I was out on deck early the morning we entered Disko Bay. Fog surrounded the ship, hazy blue-grey into infinity, light rain and calm seas. As I watched, a giant iceberg appeared through the mist, looming ominously before it faded away into oblivion. Another appeared, then yet another. Soon the ship wove carefully through a landscape of ice, each piece as unique as an individual person. “It was as if they had been borne down from a world of myth, some Gotterdammerung of noise and catastrophe”, Barry Lopez had written. “Fallen pieces of the moon”. I stared out in wonder at their silence and their magnitude.

 

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A Leap of Faith: The Murres of Cape Walstenholme

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Written by Acacia Johnson

After sailing east from Churchill, the Sea Explorer was promptly met with a gale warning. High winds, swell, and poor visibility kept us on the ship for a day and a half, and with white caps ripping across the sea’s surface outside the window, we instead turned our attention to lectures and presentations. Fortunately, clear skies soon appeared on the weather forecast, and when opportunity struck, we were prepared to seize the day.

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White Whale Wonderland: Cruising with Belugas in Churchill

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Written by Acacia Johnson

On a beautifully warm day in Churchill, Manitoba, the Sea Explorer welcomed a new group of passengers aboard. After a long day of travel and sightseeing for our guests, we had initially planned a restful evening for their first hours aboard the ship – but nature had other plans. In the true spirit of an expedition, we decided to seize the opportunities that presented themselves, because outside, something amazing was happening.

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