After sailing east from Churchill, the Sea Explorer was promptly met with a gale warning. High winds, swell, and poor visibility kept us on the ship for a day and a half, and with white caps ripping across the sea’s surface outside the window, we instead turned our attention to lectures and presentations. Fortunately, clear skies soon appeared on the weather forecast, and when opportunity struck, we were prepared to seize the day.
Thus dawned an absolutely epic day, with three excursions taking in the very best of Hudson Bay. Immediately after breakfast, we made a landing at Digges Island, where tundra ponds glistened in the sun amidst fields of wildflowers and a spectacular Dorset site waited to be explored. We later made our way to the beautiful Eric Cove, with hiking opportunities abound up a colorful river valley to catch a glimpse of caribou. Spirits were high, and we were overjoyed to be off the ship, soaking up the sun and the landscape – but nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming spectacle of nature that would present itself that evening.
After dinner, as the sun sank towards the horizon, we neared Cape Walstenholme, a dramatic coastline of gigantic, colorful cliffs plunging straight into the sea. From the reddish tones of the clifftops, the stone transitioned to orange, yellow and vibrant green vegetation before ending in the bright blue water – a full rainbowlike spectrum, illuminated in the low-angle light. And the stone’s surface, and surrounding air, was absolutely buzzing with life. Hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres filled the stone, sea and sky, churning and soaring in great spectacular waves. Even with the wind picking up, you could hear them from the ship. We loaded into zodiacs and embarked into the evening breeze.
Thick-billed murre chicks are amazing because, at three weeks old and only half-fledged, they take a leap of faith from the cliffs and into the sea. If they can make it that far, they spend the next three weeks with their fathers on the water, learning to fish and dive as they grow their flight feathers. This leaping event happens for only three or four days every year, and we had arrived right in the middle of it. At the base of the cliffs, we found the water teeming with murre chicks and their fathers, chicks dropping out of the sky around us as we idled carefully near the animals.
The experience was multisensory in every sense of the word. The sound of the birds was deafening, the smell overwhelming, the ocean spray cold and biting. The view was totally panoramic as waves of birds soared in graceful unison around us, above us, and out towards the sea, absolutely filling the sky. I was speechless, astounded to have stumbled into such a phenomenal spectacle of nature. The crimson light of sunset only intensified, setting the landscape and the animals aglow like a painting. To have born witness to such a rare and unique moment in the lives of wildlife was a gift. The experience filled the mind and the senses to the brim; it caused one to re-contemplate life in general. As the sun set on Cape Walstenholme and aurora filled the sky, I thought that in times like this, the Arctic becomes something out of a dream, a rich and captivating reminder of what it is to be alive.