Arctic: Unicorns from above
On the west side of the NW Passage most of the transits are through wide sounds and most of the islands are quite flat and low. Honestly it’s not the most interesting scenery. Things start to get more interesting as you head east as the islands become more mountainous and numerous. Once you cross through a narrow gap between the northernmost point of North America and (insert name of island I can’t recall) things get more interesting. The passage is called Bellot Strait and it is often totally impassable when chocked full of ice even as late as summer. Since the strait is narrow and quite scenic on each side, a decision was made to launch the helicopters for a wildlife recon and also for photos of the the big ship threading the needle. Our passage was timed to coincide with a slack tide to ensure the least amount of water movement and ease of navigation.
Zodiacs were quickly deployed and we buckled up for a long flight. There would be no chance to return to the ice breaker once it ended the narrow channel. Careful navigation was key. The high mountains on the west side of Bellot Strait were receiving a light dusting of snow which made for our first real “Arctic” scene of the trip. Once in the air we could see the clouds breaking up to the east allowing pockets of blue sky and brilliant sunlight on an otherwise dark landscape. It was magical, dynamic, wild, and beautiful.
Even if you haven’t been in a helicopter you probably already have a good idea of what it sounds like and how people communicate in such a noisy beast of a machine. It’s just like in the movies with the headsets, mics, and radio sounds. Most of the time we’re just enjoying the view, maybe asking for a particular lineup here or there but for the most part it’s mellow. Occasionally the pilots are talking to each other relaying their location or their intentions. None of this really matters to us passengers and certainly not a big distraction while I’m photographing. Much of the time it’s jumbled or drowned out by the rotors or by the rush of the wind while I’m hanging out of the open window taking photos.
Despite countless audio and visual distractions there are certain words that will always be heard, even by the least observant people. These words carry so much weight and meaning behind them that ignoring said word could lead to permanent, important consequences. What word stands out amongst all others in a helicopter radio headset flying in the high Arctic? Clear as a bell. Technicolor amidst the monotone. Up ahead the other helicopter had spotted the monodont. “…narwhal…”
Knowing that we can’t really have two helis orbiting the whales and that pretty ship shots were the whole reason for this expensive flight, I decided we should wait for the big ship to come through the scenic bend in the channel below us before heading to the prized marine mammals up ahead. You can imagine how I felt at that point. To top it off, the other two staff members in the chopper with me had never seen narwhal. The pilot also had made a comment earlier in the trip about wanting to see narwhal so he can retire a happy man. All of these things weighed heavy but we were there to work and if I didn’t get at least one shot of the ship, it was all a waste. No one really said anything but no one really needed to. We were all having the same internal struggle. This job is all about finding the balance between having fun (being selfish) and delivering a top-notch product.
While we waited for the ship, we had al been keeping an eye up ahead to see if we could spot the other helicopter. The channel is narrow enough that we were able to track back to their location and nervously started scanning for animals. A flock of snow geese flying in a beautiful V, show me a Q and I’ll be impressed. A few musk ox on the hillside, just shaggy cows today. Distractions all of them. After what seemed like an eternity the ship finally came through the pass. Click click click. Got it. Go! Narwhals, and gun it!
It was a bit windy so every white cap seemed to be doing its best impression of a narwhal. A splashes of white kept catching my eye but yielding nothing but bubbles. We didn’t have to wait long before Crystal spotted them just below the surface. She had spotted her first narwhal from a helicopter. How sick is that? Their bodies seemed to glow in the water just as they came to the surface to take a breath. We couldn’t have been happier. We made several orbits of the pod as they came up to breathe on their westbound transit. One of the larger outliers had really light coloration and really stood out amongst its darker brethren. It was clearly doing its best impression of a beluga but had too many blotches to actually be a white whale. There were also a few calfs in the group, solid slate grey and staying close by their mom’s side. It was pretty magical to watch these animals from a unique perspective and we all knew we were lucky.
My only wish, and I know this is sort of petty but hopefully slightly understandable, is that there were no adult males in the group that we could see. One narwhale had a tusk maybe a foot long, but it was almost impossible to spot and only really visible in photos. I still haven’t seen a real sea unicorn, just a bunch of lady unicorns. The trip isn’t over, but I really don’t think there’s going to be another opportunity like this one, certainly not this season. Maybe not ever.