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  • Writer's pictureEryn

The Northwest Passage - Wildlife of the Arctic

A polar bear sitting in the snow at the base of a cliff in the Arctic Prince Leopold Island, Canada
A polar bear lying in wait for a meal at the bottom of the cliffs of Prince Leopold Island

The Arctic may seem like a barren, vast land of nothingness, but the wildlife there is truly like no other place on Earth. Though they are skittish and shy, the Arctic is the only place you can see some of these breathtaking animals. Being wrapped up in countless layers of clothing, I am truly amazed at how these animals are able to survive in such a bitter and unforgiving environment.

In the cold, piercing winds of the Arctic, I had imagined this was no place for a bird. I was hence completely bewildered to see how many there were on Prince Leopold Island. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of birds were nesting in one huge cliff face, their sharp cries ringing in our ears. Even though the sight was beyond anything I had ever seen before, the number of birds here is actually considered small. Most of the cliff's residents have already set off on a long migration journey to warmer climates, even when their chicks are still unable to fly! While the mother birds leave first, the fathers and chicks are left to swim for three weeks until they reach more temperate habitats. To get to the ocean, however, the chicks are forced to leap from the safety of their nests, clinging onto the hope that they'll land softly in the water. Those who fall short of the sea, on the other hand, fall straight into the jaws of a patiently waiting polar bear.

Prince Leopold Island, a flat cliff island, surrounded by sea ice in the distance with blue skies and seas
Prince Leopold Island, a major nesting site for birds, surrounded by sea ice in the distance

Even while we were at sea, wildlife could still be seen. One day as we passed through the Diomede Islands, the presence of whales was suddenly announced on the speakers around the ship. All passengers, including ourselves, rushed up to the bow of the boat, and a blast of water exploded into the air. Countless humpbacks leaped up and out of the water, spinning and landing with mighty splashes. Suddenly, another announcement rang around the ship. What? Walruses? Where? All I could see on the nearest island were big brown boulders. Perplexed, I rushed over to a telescope, peering through to realize they were actually the enormous bodies of walruses.

A big mass of walruses sit at the base of a cliff right by the ocean shore
Countless walruses gathering on one of the Diomede Islands in unfortunately unnatural circumstances

As beautiful and bewildering as these creatures are, they are perhaps some of the most threatened by human beings. On top of hunting and poaching, global warming is destroying what's left of the sea ice, an element of the Arctic that is crucial to many of the native species' lives. As we later learned, the polar bear we came across was unusually thin and unlikely to survive very long, while the mass gathering of walruses puts them in a very unnatural and dangerous situation for the normally solitary animal. Though there is already a great effort being put toward saving the wildlife of the Arctic, there is still more that is needed to be done in order to preserve this unique environment along with its inhabitants.

A humpback whale breaching above the Arctic waters
A humpback whale breaching in the waters between Big and Little Diomede Islands


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