Baffin Island Explorer - A Travel Journal by Brandon Hagg

Brandon works at Polar Cruises as a Polar Expert and has been to Antarctica and the Arctic many times. Here is a timeline from his latest trip to the Arctic - "Baffin Island Explorer" from September 12 - 24, 2017.

9/13 –Iqaluit
Greetings from Baffin Island! The first day proved to be a long one. The group stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ottawa the night prior, which is right across the street from the airport. Our trip began with a smooth 2 hour and 45 minute flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit. Excellent service, good food and a lot of empty seats made it a comfy journey north.

Flight got in just after noon and we had a few hours to explore the capital of Nunavut. There was a light rain the whole afternoon but the gloomy weather did not stop us from exploring the town. It was great to see a couple of the museums, shops and the statues around town. Lots of beautiful art, both carvings and prints.

Embarkation was a long process due to the security screening they now require in Canada. This was also the ship's first time in Canada so it had to be inspected by the local authorities. It wasn’t until about 5:45pm that everyone was onboard.

Our expedition leader, Solan, held the first briefing with staff intros followed by the lifeboat drill and a late dinner. There are a lot of staff onboard; 19 expedition staff members and 5 trainees. The trainees all seem very knowledgeable and are just getting some hands-on experience before they join the staff for next Antarctic season. After dinner, all passengers picked up their included parkas.

9/14 – Lower Savage Island
This morning we had the mandatory Zodiac/safety briefing and did the boot sizing in the mud room. Having all our waterproof layers, everybody was very excited for our first excursion!

Overnight the ship made its way southeast out of Frobisher Bay. In the late morning, the Zodiacs were loaded for our first Zodiac cruise at Lower Savage Island. The rain continued into today with fairly choppy seas but we were able to find some protection in smaller channels. We saw a couple of curious seals peaking their heads out of the water, glaucous gulls and followed a purple sandpiper on the shore. We also cruised past a few small waterfalls.

In the afternoon, we had an hour lecture on photography followed by another lecture on Inuit Knowledge by Kataisee, our onboard Inuit Cultural Educator from Arctic Bay. She will be working with 15 passengers to sew mittens throughout the voyage.
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9/15 – Pangnirtung
Last night was a “rock & roll” type of night with a strong headwind. This morning was a lecture on Arctic history and the mandatory AECO guidelines briefing.

The initial plan was an early afternoon visit to the village of Pangnirtung but the strong winds and rough seas from last night set our progress back a bit. As we continued to make our way up the Cumberland Sound the inaugural gathering of the “mitten project” was held, a BBC documentary was shown followed by a very good lecture on geology.

We arrived Pang in the late afternoon with Zodiac boarding beginning at 5pm. We were welcomed by a group of excited kids and streaks of seal blood stained on the pier. We spent some time walking around the town with a local guide, checking out the co-op and the gallery with all the beautiful prints. So many amazing prints it was a bit overwhelming! In the visitor center was a local playing an accordion with dancing.

It's hard to imagine living in such an isolated community (especially in winter!) but the locals seemed happy and were very genuine with us. I really enjoyed interacting with the local kids. Last Zodiac back to the ship was 8pm, my first Zodiac ride in the dark!
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9/16 – Sunneshine Fjord
This morning the ship continued north along the east side of the Cumberland Peninsula. The morning lecture on polar bears must have brought us good luck as we got a bear sighting in the afternoon as we entered Sunneshine Fjord! There were actually 2 bears (mom & cub) high on the hillside on Castle Rock, a small island at the mouth of the fjord. We watched the bears climb down the rocks to the water where they took a polar plunge. This was closer than the bear encounters I had in Svalbard but I didn’t take any photos; just enjoyed watching them through the binoculars. Everybody was very excited for our first major wildlife sighting!

We disembarked for the landing around 5:20pm and we were on shore doing the different level hikes (chargers, medium fast, medium slow, photography & contemplative) until about 7:30pm. I joined the medium fast group and we hiked up a hill with incredible views of the fjord. The lighting and sunset was just phenomenal with different shades of pink, orange and blues scattered across the sky. Another Zodiac ride back to the ship in the dark!

Solan woke us up at 11:30pm as the staff spotted northern lights! I was on deck for about an hour watching the sky. The lights never got that bright but some people were able to pick up the greens in photos. This was my first northern lights sighting and I was really excited to experience it!
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9/17 – Isabella Bay
Today was just spectacular! Beautiful, calm conditions and the sun was shining. I could sense that Isabella Bay was going to be special from the expedition staff’s excitement last night when Solan announced our plan for today. For many of the staff it would be their first time in the largest national wildlife area in Canada, known for a large concentration of bowhead whales.

In the morning lecture on baleen whales we learned that bowheads are surface skimmers keeping their mouths open while swimming along the surface and filtering prey with their baleen. They can also break through ice 12 inches thick and they have been aged to nearly 200 years!

As we made our approach into the bay we saw tons of bowhead blows (most very close to shore). We did a Zodiac cruise and followed a few whales. They are quick and smart as they kept a distance from our Zodiac but some other Zodiacs had closer encounters. There was also a bear spotted by 2 of the Zodiacs. The light this time of year is incredible. We had another fantastic sunset and late arrival back to the ship.

After the bar talk on Wrangle Island they announced more northern lights. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the aurora was just out of this world! Green & some light purples across the whole sky. Everybody was out on deck for at least an hour and couldn't believe what we were seeing. Just no way to describe it. I feel like on every voyage I have a "moment" where I'm just so overwhelmed & grateful for what I am seeing & experiencing and this was definitely that moment.
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9/18 – Sam Ford Fjord
We got a true Arctic experience today with super strong winds. Lots of dark clouds and a wall of snow further into the fjord. Luckily it was a headwind so the captain was able to navigate the ship into the fjord. It was way too windy to even think about loading the Zodiacs so we spent about 3 hours on the ship cruising into and out of the fjord. The scenery was stunning and the conditions made the landscape quite dramatic. The passengers and staff had fun leaning into the wind at 45 degree angles on the top observation deck! Later tonight we learned the winds today were classified as 10 on the Beaufort Wind Scale, which means winds speeds of 48-55 knots!

As we left the fjord we waived goodbye to Canada, excited about what Greenland would bring.
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9/19 – Davis Straight
We had a relatively calm crossing of the Davis last night and today. The day was filled with lectures on the Great Auk, Inuit Language and Geographic history.

Currently we are in the Vaigat Channel heading towards Disko Island. Tomorrow the plan is to land at Epiq Sermia glacier, to do some hiking. We should be arriving late tonight and hopefully we will have our first morning landing of the voyage!

9/20 – Eqip Sermia
Solan woke us up this morning at 6:30am to watch the sunrise over the Greenland ice sheet. We were in the bay at Epiq Sermia with 2 visible glacier faces and lots of ice. Amazing calm conditions and incredible colors again. This time of year is great for photography!

The original plan was to pack lunches and spend the full day on shore hiking. But there was too much ice so we did a morning Zodiac cruise instead. Captain was able to pull out of the ice & bay during lunch and we did a hike in a nearby location in the afternoon. I joined the photography walk on this hike and we focused on shooting reflections through the small puddles of water on shore. It was nice to go at our own pace and practice our photography skills without feeling too rushed.

Polar plunge off the ship after the landing and a BBQ on the deck followed. Overall an excellent day in Greenland!
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9/21 – Ilulissat
Ilulissat was great! We took an early morning Zodiac cruise along the huge icebergs and were back onboard for breakfast. We packed sandwiches and spent the rest of the day on shore. Very nice to have some free time to explore and I loved how you can walk everywhere. Did a nice walk to the ice fjord on a trail and took the boardwalk back. Very well laid out, but the trails can be difficult for some people with all the boulders. I had my lunch with an awesome 360° view. Couldn't believe how calm and quiet it was there. The bergs were bigger than most buildings in Bend! It’s a magical place and I don't think the photos will do it justice.

I went through the museum and a few shops in town. The shops were much fancier than I had anticipated. It was really interesting to see the differences between the towns in Canadian Arctic vs Greenland.

The captain pulled the ship close to some of the large bergs before we left. We saw 2 humpbacks and some local hunters on an ice flow in the distance. Fresh local halibut for dinner...yum!
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9/22 – Itilleq
For the third day in a row I watched the sunrise! This time I watched it rise over mountain peaks and fjords as we sailed south along the coast. There was a morning lecture on Climate Crisis and we disembarked in the village of Itilleq just after lunch. The population is just 80 people so this is a very small village. It is an extremely picturesque place with all the houses painted in different bright colors and huge mountains in the backdrop. Three of the houses opened their doors to us for a glimpse of local life and for hot tea, coffee and pastries.

After plenty of free time to explore the village we met in the town center for a much-anticipated soccer match with the locals. The teams were split with some locals and passengers on each and the competition was tough! Although we couldn’t communicate in the same spoken language it was great to connect with the locals through our match.

Tonight was the captain’s farewell dinner with steak and prawns and an endless selection of desserts set up in the buffet area. Afterwards was the slideshow of photos and videos from the voyage that the photographers had put together. Everybody really enjoyed looking back at some of the highlights of the trip.
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9/23 – Disembarkation & Charter flight back to Ottawa
Last night we made our way up the deep fjord to the town of Kangerlussuaq. A representative from the charter flight airline came onboard to check in all passengers. We took our last Zodiac cruise to shore where busses were waiting to transfer us to the airport. We had another smooth charter flight and arrived into 80°+ heat in Ottawa! We were transferred to the included group hotel for our last night.

It was an amazing trip.