Today is the first full day of our expedition, and I have just returned from our first expedition of the expedition — a zodiac cruise around Hantsch island to observe a colony of thick-billed murres, or 'akpak' in Inuktitut. They are the Penguins of the North. Well, they look like penguins, but they fly. And genetically they're not penguins, they're part of the Auk family, like puffins and other black and white sea-birds. In fact, the thick-billed murre is the most abundant marine bird in the northern hemisphere. But they stay so far north that they are little appreciated or recognised. We also saw black-legged kittiwakes, really sweet looking seagulls. Amazing what you can learn when there's an ornithologist on board and a briefing before the outing.
Birds resting on an iceberg
I now share the ship's library with two Inuit students who are finishing watercolour paintings around the theme 'life in the North'. The wall is already adorned with pictures from this morning's art workshop including depictions of inukshui (the plural of inukshuk, a symbol and cairn in Inuit culture), a narwhal piercing the ocean's surface, icebergs, an arctic tern, and aurora. A student of photo-journalism from Afghanistan has just walked in to make a hot chocolate. Behind her, Johnny Issaluk, an Inuit Games athlete and coach, has been showing a group the polar bear claw that he wears around his neck. We didn't see a polar bear on this outing although there was a very polar bear-shaped patch of ice that some folk thought moved, and the first team that scouted the area in the morning saw a bear climbing the island. So they are around.
I was in a zodiac with the Honourable Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, five students from the territory of Nunavut of which Ann is High Commissioner, a student from New York on her third SOI Arctic trip, a dynamic head-teacher from Ottawa, and a student from the Canadian 'South'. In a polar world, the distinction between North and South seems to fall either at +60 or -60 latitude, but never the equator. Folk who regularly go to Antarctica talk about "going South this year". However at the other end of the world, in the Arctic, anyone who lives below 60N is a 'Southerner'. In Alaska it's the same — any talk of leaving to one of the other 48 states is referred to as 'going Outside'. It felt appropriate to be on my first zodiac outing in the Arctic with Inuktitut being spoken around me — and another reminder of the stark differences between the extreme North and South.
The Honourable Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, High Commissioner of Nunavut, before boarding the Lyubov Orlova in the background (R Salmon)
Our zodiac driver was from Argentina. In the austral summer he works in Antarctica, in the Boreal summer he works here. We asked him what the differences were to him, and which he preferred. The differences... well, Antarctica has penguins, the Arctic has murres, Antarctica has leopard seals, the Arctic has polar bears... they have elephant seals where here there are walruses. In Antarctica there are 25 tourist ships and no communities. Here is better: only about three tourist ships, so you never see the other ones... but several local communities. But the air is the same in both.
So, it's a diverse group. 60 students from Norway, Monaco, Afghanistan, every Northern province and territory of Canada, southern Canada, USA, including Alaska, and Mexico. For some, this is the first time outside of their small towns whereas others have been to every continent but never the north of their own country. Others are polar veterans. Upon check-in, I overheard a staff member say to a new arrival "you look familiar... do I know you?" To which he replied "yeah, we were in Antarctica together" like they had met down the street last week. Which, in this community, they kind of had. That evening during introductions, the same new arrival said, "Hi, I'm 15, from the US, and I'm a photographer". It made me smile at the time but I have since been put in my place. He goes nowhere without at least two cameras around his neck and has already taught the expedition photographer a few new tricks. Meanwhile, I've abandoned my point-and-shoot to the debris of my bag... with the amazing shots being taken all around by students, full time videographer, photographer, and film crew, there doesn't seem much point. Plus, there seems to be a struggle getting any communication back to Ottawa via satellite, and the photographer is happy for her images to be used widely, so I'll just add my text to the daily transfer and hope it gets worked out on the Other Side. Considering that comms is central to outreach and promotion of Students On Ice, and they're having a hard time, I now appreciate all the more the Arctic researchers who have been sharing their stories with us from the field on www.IPY.org.
A student, Brennan, discusses equipment with photographer Lee Narreway on the steps of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa (R Salmon)
The moment our plane landed in Iqaluit the group dynamic shifted. Those familiar with the scenery took a deep breath of the fresh air and felt themselves 'home' again. Those used to more southern climes inhaled the fresh coolness and gaped at the abandoned ice rocks littering the beach at low tide. Iqaluit has one of the largest tides in the world and we had to wait for the water to come in before we could reach the ship, the Lyubov Orlova, calmly bobbing in the bay and waiting our arrival. When it finally did, and bags were loaded, we —
— and so it is, that another stream of thought gets interrupted by another null polar bear sighting. But what a great way to get everyone back on deck, away from their earthly distractions, and enjoying the stunning arctic air, sunshine, calmness, and scenery. Long may it last.
Students enjoy their first ice, on the beach in Iqaluit (R Salmon)
Three students tasting ice.
Rhian is part of the Education team on the Students On Ice Arctic 08 expedition. To read stories by the students and watch them on video, please visit www.studentsonice.com. Photos by Lee Narraway unless otherwise stated.
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Tuesday, 05 August 2008 18:20
Penguins of the North. That Fly.Written by Rhian Salmon
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