Thursday, 7 August 2014

Return to Resolute Bay

4th August
After a failed attempt to send a dry shipper (a container infused with liquid nitrogen for holding our blood samples) to the team in Eureka (it spent two weeks in Quebec) and various calls to other shipping agents, we decided the only sure option for getting one up there was to travel with it. So Stu set off on Sunday. No problems all the way to Iqaluit, which was basking in sun, ice-free and 17 degrees C. However, the weather in Resolute Bay had been pretty awful over the last couple of weeks, only two flights got in over a 9-day period.  So as they called our flight it was made clear that there was a less than 50% chance of getting in.
View from my hotel room in Arctic Bay
On landing at Arctic Bay to refuel it became clear that the chance of getting in was even slimmer and after an hour at the airstrip it was cancelled with the promise of a very early flight the following morning. We stayed at the Tangmaarvik Inn, not particularly salubrious, but great views out over the bay, flat calm, total reflection (see pic) and blue fulmars gliding and dipping sending ripples out to meet the iceflows. Dinner at $60 was welcome, but bloody awful. 

Arctic Bay also has some resonance with the project as we have been working with Naomi Hart (an Exeter artist) who last year sent brent goose postcards all over the world for people to post them back to her for an installation on bird migration (see Anyway the link comes from a postcard sent to her by a school boy from this very village (see pic).

5th August

Up at 4am local time, at the airstrip by 5 boarded the plane and arrived in Resolute in time for breakfast. The weather had cleared dramatically and we had the makings of a beautiful day. While I was heading north the team from Eureka was heading south and of course the poor weather meant that they had got stuck too (Ian’s post will fill in the gaps). But they arrived mid-morning and because of the weather window, Tom, Ian and Kerry had just enough time for lunch before we were loading the helicopter to go and look for geese. John Innes (who we have worked with much of the season) was our pilot and we set out just after lunch, heading northwest across Cornwallis Island (yet another place that looks like the surface of Mars) toward McDougall Sound and Tern Island. The weather got clearer as we hit the sea, now petrol blue flecked with white ice. A quick circuit of tern Island revealed lots of king eiders, Arctic terns and many young Sabine’s gulls, but no geese. We then turned northeast heading for the coast of Devon island and a fuel cache. We saw a few small flocks of Brent, on some of the outlying islands but all were flying and so no chance of any catches. After refuelling at Stewart Point on the south east coast of the Grinnell Peninsula, we had yet another spectacular flight, along seabird cliffs and iced in fjords. Lots of moulting eiders and long-tailed ducks, more Sabine’s gulls and an ivory gull, but very few geese and again those we did see were already flying. Nice to see lots of walruses out and the ice (see pic) and some very big groups (50+) packed onto some of the beaches.

We rounded Cape Briggs and headed east into the Belcher Channel. This was an area that Kendrew had seen lots of families in 2005, however it was the same story and eventually we hit a fog bank. John tried very hard to get around it including flying up a narrow riverbed at about 20ft with about 100m visibility. We decided to try the east coast of Bathurst Island instead. The Penny Strait was flat calm and we saw several female narwhal, one of which was sleeping and a polar bear mum and cub (see the two white dots near the top of the pic below) on an iceflow about 10miles from land.
Alas Bathurst was just as disappointing, lots of geese, but none we could catch, apart from 5-10 birds that were probably moulting. We refuelled at Polar Bear pass, which is a low wetland that cuts through central Bathurst from east to west. We checked more of the Bathurst coast to the southeast, but the weather had really closed in and it was now raining. We decided to cut our losses and turned east, back towards Cornwallis Is and Resolute. Crossing McDougal sound we saw a really nice male narwhal and we did see a few more geese along the coast of Cornwallis, but no families. Looks like there may not have been many breeders in this part of the world this year.

6th August

Snow first thing, was not a great sign for us and sure enough when we spoke to Glenn (the logistics controller at Polar Shelf) it was clear that we were not going to get flying. Freezing rain is bad for helicopters. So we had one of those days in Resolute, where we lurched from one large meal to another, with cookies and cakes in between. We did get a car and had a bit of a drive around the one road that runs between the base and the town. The town, like many in the Arctic, is a pretty grim place, lots of rubbish blowing everywhere and septic tanks emptying into the adjacent river. We also visited a 600 year-old Thule (the first Inuit settlers in this part of the world) settlement, must have been a very hard existence up here… cannot imagine why they abandoned. After some protracted negotiations, we have managed to get to fly tomorrow (weather permitting). So we are planning to head up to Devon Island again to Cape Vera and Hell’s Gate. There is a Polynya up there which means open water and hopefully some families. Kerry, Graham and Alyn leave at 5am and so we said our goodbyes before bed. 

7th August

The wind got up overnight and so all plans to fly to Devon are up the spout. After a look at the map we decide that it might be worth heading round Cornwallis (as Glenn does not want us to travel any further). At 10am we get the nod and so we take a big punt on there being geese on some of the river mouths to north and east of the island. East Cornwallis is a desolate place, we fly for over 30 minutes across the centre of the island and do not see a single living thing. Again we do come across some Brent, but all are fliers. The wind is getting stronger and stronger and we head for home as the fuel gauge hits 100lbs (about half an hours flying time). So a lot of flying and travelling by yours truly for very little scientific reward.
However we have had a fantastic season and got more done than I dared hope: found new breeding areas, close to 30 individuals resighted, 24 nests found, 120 adults ringed and sampled, 60 chicks ringed and sampled, diet samples collected from all over and flown several 1000miles of coastline. I am very proud of Tom, Ian and Chantelle in particular for all their hard work and dedication spending the entire summer at 80 degrees north, under arduous, but spectacularly beautiful (well most of the time) conditions. Big big thanks also to Sean and Freydis for the middle stint and warding off polar bears and the same goes to Alyn, Kerry and Graham for the last few weeks. We will do it again…possibly not next year, but 2016 is on the cards….. and of course it will be autumn before we know it so keep watching!!
Late season team at Resolute base. L to R: Chantelle, Stu, Alyn, Tom, Ian, Graham and Kerry

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