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Beluga Whales Parade & Play in Cunningham River

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Beluga whale - Photo credit: Nansen Weber

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 Beluga watching. Photo credit: Nansen Weber

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.

Beluga gathering. Photo credit: Nansen Weber

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.

map of Beluga areasViewing 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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Yellowknife

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Travelers en route to the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge are first treated to a stop in Yellowknife. This vibrant, scenic city in Canada’s Northwest Territories serves as the gateway to the Arctic and offers a fantastic variety of activities, both outdoor and urban. Situated on the Canadian Shield and Great Slave Lake (the deepest lake in North America), Yellowknife is known as the aurora borealis viewing capital of the world and is the hub of the region’s oil and mining industries.

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Photo courtesy of Tim Post, Director, Sales and Client Service at Quark Expeditions.

History buffs will appreciate Yellowknife’s rich heritage, reaching back thousands of years to the native Weledeh Dene, Dogrib and North Slavery. Together, these Aboriginal people comprise over 20 percent of the city’s small population (under 20,000 residents). If you are spending a few days in the city, expect them to be full! Yellowknife is brimming with cultural and historic attractions. You'll also find an abundance of recreational and adventure opportunities by land, water and air.

Keep in mind the sun shines 24 hours a day in July. Yellowknife’s subarctic desert climate temperatures can be nearly as warm as in southern Canada. Pack for any weather and plan to dress in layers. Stroll or bike through Old Town, in Yellowknife’s picturesque lakefront district, or visit any number of historic sites and museums, such as Pilot’s Monument and The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. For outdoor adventurists, there’s hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and even float plane flying! “Nightlife” under the midnight sun also thrives with dining, dancing, festivals and concerts.

For more information about Yellowknife, go to: http://www.visityellowknife.com.

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An Invitation to Meet the Arctic’s Wildlife Denizens

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Feature image by Nansen Weber Photography

Landing ashore Somerset Island, Nunavut, some 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, is in itself a rare event only a handful of Arctic wilderness adventurists, photographers and researchers have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand. Already known as the premier site for observing beluga whales, Somerset Island is also home to the most beautiful and exotic land-based occupants of the extreme north, from Arctic foxes and hares to muskox and polar bears.

 Imagine having the opportunity to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat…all within a short distance from the comforts of an intimate 5-star lodge situated in the center of the Arctic’s wildlife habitat! As of summer 2015, you can: Quark Expeditions has partnered with Arctic Watch to offer Arctic wildlife lovers a 10-day Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge expedition, kicking off in 2015 for six weeks in July and August.

By Land or By Sea

By kayak, raft, ATV or foot, you may encounter any (or perhaps even many) of the Arctic’s wild inhabitants. An Arctic wildlife outing may bring you up close and personal with…

Arctic Fox

 

Arctic Fox Photo courtesy of Nansen Weber Photography

White or blue-gray by winter, during the summer months you’ll find the Arctic fox sporting its alternative camouflage coat of brown and gray to blend in with the tundra’s seasonal landscape of rocks and ground-hugging vegetation. Spring brings a typically large litter of Arctic fox pups, up to 14! So it may be a hiker’s (or ATV rider’s) delight to see these inquisitive, playful youngsters frolicking about the tundra – and mom at her wit’s end trying to rein them in.

Arctic Hare

 

Arctic Hare Photo courtesy of Nansen Weber Photography

Like the Arctic fox, the Arctic hare changes out its snowy-white winter wardrobe for a blue-gray hue to conceal it from the sharp eyes of its predators. And like the Arctic fox, these extreme northern hares give birth in the spring and early summer, though not as prolifically – averaging anywhere from two to eight offspring per season. Somewhat larger than rabbits found in more temperate climes, the Arctic hare uses its elongated hind legs to sprint up to speeds of 60 kilometers per hour – another adaptation to help it elude predators… like the Arctic Fox!

Arctic Muskox

 

Muskox Photo courtesy of Nansen Weber Photography

A behemoth with a strictly vegetarian diet, the Arctic muskox sustains itself with the tundra’s bountiful salad of mosses, lichens, roots, flowers and grasses (the latter in the summer). If you do run across muskoxen, chances are it’ll coincide with their dramatic summer rutting (mating) season. Bulls will bellow, lower their heads and charge their rivals in their efforts to establish dominance and thereby claim their own “harem” of females.

The rutting season is timed to occur just after the female muskox has given birth to a single calf, between April and June. The young are up on their feet within hours of birth, so should you happen upon a herd, sometimes numbering from 24 to 36 animals, don’t be surprised if they snort, stomp, and form a protective circle around their young!

Ringed Seal

 

Ringed Seal Photo courtesy of Nansen Weber Photography

Named for its gray-white rings stylishly adorning its gray coat, the Arctic ringed seal is by far the most widespread Arctic marine mammal. Once the sea-ice has yielded in late spring and early summer, ringed seals – including their individual broods of a single spring-born pup – may be seen along the edges of the shore ice or in open water. Ringed seals favor Arctic cod, but are also fond of krill and shrimp. They are known to dive to depths of up to 90 meters in search of their favorite food, and can stay submerged for up to 45 minutes.

Polar Bear

 

Polar Bear Photo taken by a Quark passenger

Where there are seals, there are likely to be polar bears. Polar bears relish the seals’ fat, a ready source of high-calorie food. You may spy a polar bear stalking the edges of an ice floe or breathing holes frequented by the seals. The undisputed sovereign of the Arctic and the largest species of the world’s bears, a mature male polar bear can weigh in at 351 to 544 kilograms (775 to 1,200 pounds). Mature females, generally half that size, are still formidable, especially so when protecting their young. A female polar bear, with anywhere from one to three cubs tagging along, will emerge from her winter’s den in early spring (late March to early April). So come summer, and come some good fortune, you may realize the Arctic wildlife lover’s dream of watching this magnificent animal teaching her young how to hunt. They’re already skilled at play!

Other Arctic wildlife you may spy include caribou, snowy owls, majestic peregrine falcons, and of course, beluga whales!

Learn more about Quark’s new land-based Arctic adventure and the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge and give us a call with any questions.

We hope to see you next summer!

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Quark Expeditions Welcomes You to the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge Experience

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Exciting news! For the upcoming 2015 expedition seasons, Quark is very pleased to offer our first-ever land-based adventure. It's an Arctic experience like no other, 500 miles above the Arctic Circle at the family-owned and operated Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island, Nunavut.

A world class beluga whale observation site, Somerset Island lies between Prince of Wales Island and Baffin Island in the remote Canadian Arctic Archipelago. An Arctic safari experience here might include sightings of muskox, polar bears, arctic fox or rare Arctic birds, alongside fantastic Arctic char fishing. For six weeks each summer season, Quark travelers will have the opportunity to visit Arctic Watch and be one of just 26 guests, accompanied by two experienced Quark expedition leaders who supplement the amazing Arctic Watch team.

This partnership between Arctic Watch and Quark Expeditions will give guests the very same intimate and authentic Arctic lodge experience the Weber family has been offering since 2000, with additional expertise from the Quark team and enhanced creature comforts for 2015.

 

Arctic Watch

 

Sea kayak with beluga whales, raft the swift-moving Cunningham River, hike the vast and colorful summer tundra, or explore the rugged terrain of Somerset Island by ATV. At the end of the day, guests retire to the 5-star Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, Trip Advisor's top-rated Nunavut lodge. The lodge features private double accommodations, locally-sourced gourmet meals, the greatest selection of Canadian wines in the Arctic and more.

Our 10-day Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge expedition kicks off in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. A 1,000 mile, four and a half hour charter flight to Somerset Island via Cambridge Bay takes us over the treeline to the barrens, offering spectacular 360° views of the Canadian Arctic land and seascape.

ATV Riding

Your week at the lodge has you fully immersed in an authentic Arctic adventure, from kayaking Cunningham Inlet, to hiking Flatrock Falls, to exploring life as it might have been in 1000 A.D. at five ancient Thule sites along the coast. (All adventure options are weather permitting.) Soak up the midnight sun; Somerset Island is a photographer's paradise in the summer, under 24 hours of daylight.

Visitors have the opportunity throughout the week to view terns, plovers, snow geese, ring and bearded seals, polar bears, muskox and even a den of Arctic fox, with fox cubs at play.

Arctic Watch Beluga

Don't be surprised to see playful belugas showing off for guests throughout your stay! The gathering of belugas at Cunningham Inlet is a phenomenon very few will ever witness; this is the home of the largest annual congregation of whales in the world. For about 4 weeks each summer, approximately 2000 belugas play, molt, mate and nurse their young in pristine Cunningham Inlet, where visitors can stand just steps away on shore to observe. This site is just a 15-minute walk from the lodge and offers a tower for observing from on high.

Beluga Whales

 

Whether it's your first time north of 60 or your fifteenth, Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge and Somerset Island will reshape your perspective of the Canadian Arctic and all it has to offer. We'd love for you to join us this summer! Visit our expedition itinerary to learn more and contact us with any questions at 1-888-979-4010 (or 1-802-490-3628 outside North America).

All images courtesy of Nansen Weber Photography from ArcticWatch.ca

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