Day 3: Bears, Belugas, and Bellot Strait – Coningham Bay and Bellot Strait
An early breakfast allowed us to pile into the zodiacs for a 9am expedition to Coningham Bay at the southern end of Prince of Wales Island. The objective was simple: find, and photograph polar bears. Shortly before we left, an announcement came over the PA system, which sent a shock of excitement through the ship: not only had polar bears been sighted from the ship’s bridge, but so too had a pod of beluga whales. Coningham bay is extremely shallow and we were told that t he area is frequented by beluga whales because they like to rub against the floor of the bay.
Francis Leopold McClintock was the first known European to arrive at Prince of Wales Island while searching for Sir John Franklin in 1851. Together with Sherard Osborn and William Browne, McClintock charted the northern half of the island. However, our interests were in the southern island where hunters had, several weeks ago, killed some beluga and harvested the blubber. The remains were prime scavenging opportunities drawing many polar bear down to the shores of Coningham Bay.
Since the bay is so shallow, our ship dropped anchor several miles from shore and we rode the zodiacs for 20 minutes to reach the areas of interest. Because there are no buildings, no trees, and very few signs of life, it is very difficult to tell how far you are from land. Each time we seemed to be getting close to land I would look ahead and the zodiacs far in front of ours wer e still nowhere near the shore. Far, far off in the distance, tiny white specs were spotted against the slopes of Prince of Wales Island; we had found the bears. As we continued, there were disturbances in the relatively calm water revealing a pod of beluga whales ahead of our convoy, but just as quickly as they showed themselves they disappeared and went south in the opposite direction of the zodiacs.
The excitement from the belugas had barely passed when the lead boat radioed to alert us that a polar bear swimming off the starboard side of the convoy. Sure enough, we saw a white head poking out of the water. A large polar bear was lounging in the water, watching the zodiacs as they cruised by. Another smaller bear was spotted walking along the water’s edge and curiously sniffing in our direction. Three more bears were spotted farther away: one large male and what appeared to be a mother and cub. Unfortunately as we approached, the bears made a quick retreat up the steep shoreline. The zodiacs came about and made to head back in the direction of the ship and on the opposite shore we saw the same bear that had been swimming earlier. He was now walking about and as the zodiacs came closer and slowed down, he wandered out to a spit of land that jutted out from the shore. It made for a wonderful photo opportunity, but I had to remind myself that it was just as, if not more important to take the time to simply watch this majestic creature rather than only take pictures of it.
Due to the tides, our sail schedule changed so that we crossed Bellot Strait a day early. Joseph René Bellot was an experienced French sailor who took part in the search for John Franklin. On one of his expeditions near Beechey Island, he slipped through a crack in the ice and was never seen again. The crossing of Bellot strait is very narrow and dangerous which provided a slow pace and a great opportunity to stand on the decks of the ship to l ook for wild life. The majority of what we saw were various types of gulls and geese but there were also brief sightings of a polar bear, muskox, a bearded seal, and even the elusive narwhal. Following the completion of this passage, the ship’s resident naturalist Tony Beck gave a presentation of the many types of animals that we have seen and what other animals we might see.
Did you know that belugas can sometimes be seen swimming in parts of the St. Lawrence river?
Because we were ahead of schedule, the sail plan was altered so that tomorrow we will not be going to Fort Ross, an abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company Post. Instead, we will be going to Port Leopold........an abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company Post. However, there are several other extremely significant historical points of interest at this site, but that information will be revealed in the next post.
Words and photographs by Duncan MacLeod; Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum