"Terra!" Comes the call from the flybridge. Far off to port, with icebergs
in the foreground, we spy the mountain ranges of Baffin and Bylot Islands,
the southern sentinels of Lancaster Sound. The snow-covered peaks, some
rising to almost two-thousand meters are clearly visible, even 50 miles off
shore. These islands are significant for geography fans and wildlife
enthusiasts: Baffin Island is the fifth largest island on earth and boasts
the largest lake of any island on our planet. Bylot Island is a bird
sanctuary with more than 35 migratory breeding species gathering by the
hundreds of thousands among the mountains, snowfields, and glaciers.
This puts us in the company of sea birds. Northern Fulmar, with their
stocky shoulders and fast wingbeats, cruise around Rosehearty, looking for
small fish and squid disturbed by our wake. They fly close enough for us to
see their naricorns, the name for their protruding nostrils, attached to
their upper bill. Richie, Boxy and Ethan, all armed with lightning shutter
speed cameras and long telephoto lenses, try to capture these birds as they
swoop and careen close to the surface. According to the Audubon Society
website, these Fulmar have at least two fascinating adaptations. For
defence, Fulmar produce a waxy stomach oil, which when ejected from their
mouths can mat the feathers and disable approaching predators. And because
of the large amounts of ocean water they ingest as they feed, Fulmar have
their own on board desalinators: a gland situated above the nasal passage
extracts the salt and pushes the nearly pure saline out of their nostrils.
We are also seeing large flocks of what I now know are Guillemots. When I
first saw these birds sitting in clusters on the water, I noticed that they
were not very efficient in flight, often needing rapid wing beats and a long
runway to get in to the air. I asked Kiwi Mark, if he knew what they were
"Aw yep," he insisted; "They're called Kanardlys."
I was impressed with his avian knowledge and did not take notice of Markus,
his watch partner, smothering a laugh in his cup of coffee. Kiwi Mark
continued, "They're called Kanardlys because they canardlyfly!"
Kanardlys or Guillemots, may not be great fliers but they are excellent
swimmers. As we approach the floating clusters, often, rather than scatter
to the air, these birds simply dive down, and "fly" underwater. Apparently,
young Guillemot get little flying practice. Nesting parents lay a single
egg on sheer cliff faces of places like Bylot Island in spring so that by
the start of summer, their young are ready to take to the ocean to hunt for
squid, fish and small crustaceans. The challenge is that in order to get
from the cliff edge to the sea, the young birds have to leap, as far away
from the edge as possible and use webbed feet and small wings to flap and
glide as best they can in to the sea. Many tumble in flight, bouncing off
rocks, on the way, their downy coats cushioning them from the knocks and
jolts, until they drop into a frigid, foamy sea.
"The water has dropped two degrees since yesterday," Ethan tells me as we
watch the birds dive under water out of our way. Ethan is working on his
Chief Office's ticket and as such is doing most of the passage plans and
nautical publication review under Markus and Captain Hutch's watchful eyes.
"It was 5c and now it's down to 3c. I guess it's all that cold water from
the Arctic Ocean, running out of Lancaster Sound. That's the way the water
moves this time of the year."
"Do you prefer warm water cruising like we did in Tahiti or cold water
sailing?" I ask him. He smiles faintly and reflects for a moment. "I love
being up here. The landscape is on steroids and the water, well with all
the sea life and the ice, it's just magic."