Looming Large in the Arctic

A guest post by Pierre Richard. Photo by Dennis Minty.

A platoon of long-walkers made their way up a hill on Devon Island. Upon reaching the top, they fell silent and pulled out binoculars and cameras, silently creeping along the hilltop. Below, some six hundred metres into a valley, a dozen round brown shapes with golden mantled were standing in a sedge meadow. “Musk ox,” the trekkers whispered excitedly. The scene was amazing; the musk oxen were in full light, between us and the shore—and a kilometre away, listing gently at anchor, the ship waited.

Later that week, along the Greenlandic coast, the sea was perfectly calm and the setting sun bathed the land in rapt golden hues. Suddenly, a tall blow rose ahead of the bow. It was followed by the raspy sound of a whale’s breath. Soon, another blow followed … and another, and another. The ship was surrounded by six large whales, which lingered for nearly half an hour until we lost them in the receding light…

The Arctic’s treeless landscape and its vast waters provide priceless opportunities to admire terrestrial and marine mammals. While seabirds are the ship’s constant companion on expeditions, the sudden appearance of a group of musk oxen, a polar bear, a large whale, or a pod of belugas sends a wave of excitement through us all, whether on board or ashore. Large mammals are plentiful in polar environments, but they tend to be aggravated by our presence—many are shy, so spotting them tends to be feast and famine. We go for days without any sightings, and suddenly they are everywhere. Here, a herd of harp seals; there, three walruses. Finally, a polar bear.

The Inuit rely heavily on large mammals for sustenance but they also marvel at their majesty and ability. Their conversations are rich with stories about these mammals and the value—literal and cultural—of their meat, their skin, their fat. While stories of the demise of Arctic mammal populations abound, they are often exaggerated. Most Canadian large mammal populations—with a few exceptions—are plentiful. They are, nevertheless, the subject of much debate regarding sustainable hunting levels and, more recently, how climate change will affect their numbers and condition in the future. It is an important debate.

As a long-time Arctic marine mammal researcher, Pierre has focused on the population biology of belugas and narwhals of the Canadian Arctic, developing recommendations for the sustainable use and conservation of their populations. He is known in Nunavut as “Pieri, angutikutaq qilalugalerei” (‘the tall man who knows about belugas and narwhals’). He is the author of a Nunavut school book on Marine Mammals of Nunavut and several French language books on whales and mammals of eastern Canada and the Arctic. Pierre likes to spend a lot of time on the ships’ decks or out in a boat to spot marine mammals and birds.