What a spot for the last Zodiac excursion on One Ocean’s Labrador and Torngat Mountains expedition cruise: the Button Islands are located near an upwelling of ocean currents laden with nutrients, which make these barren, low islands the Arctic equivalent of an African watering hole. A frigid Zodiac safari in the Button Islands is likely to encounter sea birds, marine mammals and polar bears.
The southernmost land in Nunavut (more than 300 km south of Baffin Island), this grouping of islands is named for Sir Thomas Button, who led an expedition in 1612-13 to find the Northwest Passage and Henry Hudson (whose crew mutinied and put him adrift in an open lifeboat in 1611).
The remoteness of these islands means if something goes wrong, no outsider is going to come to your rescue. So the excursion rules changed for this outing. Each Zodiac was equipped with a radar reflector, each Zodiac guide was to carry a GPS unit and Zodiacs had to travel in pairs.
It was foggy when we boarded our Zodiac and set out after our “buddy” Zodiac, seen here heading for the Button Islands.
It was a little unnerving watching the RCGS Resolute disappear into the fog behind us.
Within minutes we spotted was a dancing bob of (probably harp) seals. I pressed the shutter button exactly once before they disappeared under water!
My disappointment was short-lived, thanks to the first spotting of a polar bear!
There it is, a white dot on dark-grey rock, with our “buddy” Zodiac slowly approaching.
Thanks to good advance planning, Mr GeoK had his longest lens ready to go and came away with a pretty good photo, even from where we hung back so as to to stress/pressure the bear.
After everyone aboard both Zodiacs had at least one photo, it was time to navigate to our objective: Goodwin Island to observe a Black-legged Kittiwake colony. It was at this point we learned two things: 1) the guide in our “buddy” Zodiac had – at the last minute – handed her GPS unit off to one of the other guides because neither in his buddy group had a GPS unit; and 2) the guide in our Zodiac discovered that – despite testing it before disembarking – her GPS unit wasn’t working! Which explains why the guide in our “buddy” Zodiac is holding a paper map and looking hopefully at our Zodiac. And which explains why I ended up digging into my drysack, pulling out the Garmin 66i we’d packed along, and handing it over to our guide! 😉 After studying the GPS screen for a couple of minutes, our guided handed back the unit and we were on our way to Goodwin Island!
Sure enough, there was a Black-legged Kittiwake colony, easy to find thanks to the cacophony of bird calls and the smell coming off the cliff. Since the cliffs are so shear rising out of the sea, the birds nest here in relatively safety from bears, although still vulnerable to predator birds like peregrines.
Here’s a zoomed in shot, again thanks to Mr GeoK’s telephoto lens, that gives a better idea of what Black-legged Kittiwakes look like – a type of seagull to my uneducated eye.
Some of the Zodiacs that reached Goodwin Island before we did were bobbing just off another nearby island where a polar bear was hanging out. We were all enthralled. The bear lifted its head a couple of times, but mostly just lay flat, conserving energy.
We were the last two Zodiacs to turn away from the bear to head back to the ship. By the time we departed, no other Zodiacs were in sight. There was still a fair bit of fast-moving cloud, though…
We were moving along at a pretty good clip, low-hanging cloud all around.
Perhaps we disturbed the Kittiwake colony, because suddenly a whole flock of birds was overhead.
After 10 or 15 minutes, our “buddy” Zodiac slowed down and waited for us to overtake. The guides conferred. First they confirmed how much gas was in each tank. Then, they debated whether it was shorter to continue the same way down the channel to where it eventually opened up and would allow us to turn towards RCGS Resolute or whether to turn around and retrace our route. Again, I ended up pulling out our GPS unit and handing it over so they could make an informed assessment as the the shorter route: straight ahead to the break between two islands. And we were off again! By the time the break between the two islands came into view another 10 minutes later, the clouds had pretty much disappeared.
I’m sure I was not alone in breathing a sigh of relief when the RCGS Resolute came into view.
Since we were the last Zodiacs to return to the mother ship, our guides let the motors rip!
Soon enough, we were queuing up to re-board the ship. It was another memorable excursion. We were never really in danger of being lost, thanks to the radar reflectors mounted to the stern of each Zodiac. And when the sun came out we warmed up pretty quickly. So in addition to the most excellent polar bear sightings, we came away with a great story.:)
That was our last evening on board and as we sailed into Frobisher Bay, we were up on the observation deck watching for glaciers and taking in the ice blowing in from the breakup in Hudson’s Bay.
Here’s one of the big ‘bergs that the captain avoided. The western arm of Frobisher Bay is on the horizon.
Here are several of the icebergs Mr GeoK photographed that afternoon.
He went up on deck one last time as the sun was going down. Note the ice chunks floating all around the ship. There was no way to dodge them all, so throughout the night our “sleep” was constantly disrupted by loud thunks when the ice-hardened hull of the ship hit the larger chunks and then we’d feel and hear the thunks as the ice tumbled under the hull from bow to stern. That experience made me wonder what it would have been like to sail with Henry Hudson or Thomas Button, through Arctic waters in a wood-hulled vessel. I don’t think my nerves could have taken it!