Every Arctic Voyage Needs a Mammal Observer…

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts, Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said, The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet, We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion. The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world, the liquid flowing syllables. The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm, the boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here, And this is the oceans’ poem.

~Walt Whitman~


When I reflect on the various ocean voyages I have been fortunate to undertake I can’t help but think how the pursuit of sea time has shaped my life. Fueled by an oceanic addiction in education, profession, and pastimes, I feel blessed and cursed with the continual desire to learn about the ocean and its inhabitants, to search more horizons, and to reach the less traveled waters. Thus, when offered, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to join the Petermann 2015 expedition as marine mammal observer.


Being at sea is a wonderful contradiction between confinement of the vessel walls and vastness of the open ocean, a nightmare for both the agoraphobic and claustrophobic, but utopia for one who easily settles into the monotony of a miniature floating world while finding fulfillment by the infinite expanse outside. I am the latter and have noted that most of the compatriots on the Oden seem to be in the same boat (pun intended). There is no better place to be than “at sea” and no better way to be “at sea” than sharing the experience with a dynamic group of individuals passionate about studying the earth sciences, those crazy and willing to put their lives aside for 6 weeks and travel to 81° N to apply their knowledge and skills in their respective scientific disciplines.


Oden, filled with our team, equipment and supplies, departed Thule, Greenland on July 29th, transited over 700 km north, iceabreaking through Nares Strait to reach the Petermann Fijord on August 3. Breathtaking would be an understatement for the vista encountered. Over 50 kilometers in length the fjord is lined by colossal cliffs teeming with a multitude of tumbling waterfalls, slaloming glacial valleys, caves, crevices, and spires. Throughout the day and night colors of red, auburn, gray and brown continuously evolve with the Arctic’s perpetual summer sunlight. An ice cap spills over the cliff tops producing an appearance of sloppy icing slathered on gingerbread. I have spent the past week contemplating these raw and rugged precipices and am still awestruck by their grandeur and diversity.


Petermann Fijord Cliffs

Petermann Fijord


We are currently one third of the way through the expedition and it feels as though everyone has settled into his or her respective role, routine, and general life on the Oden. My role as the marine mammal observer entails full days scanning the water and ice for marine mammals and collecting data on sightings. I set up a small observation station in the port bridge at a lofty height of 30 m above the water. My equipment includes a GPS interfaced computer, 20×100 “big eye” binoculars, camera, 7×50 binoculars typically either in front of my eyes or around my neck, and a field notebook for jotting down thoughts and overall observations. I stand behind a wall of 28 oversized windows providing a nearly 360° view of the surrounding water and ice. It is platform perfection for the marine mammal observer.


Marine mammal observation station


In these waters there are are nine species of marine mammals known to occur, including the polar bear, walrus, bowhead whale, beluga whale, narwhal, and four species of seal; hooded, harp, bearded and ringed. So far we have had three polar bear sightings and over 75 seals, mostly bearded and ringed with a few harp and hooded. Bearded seals are easily identifiable as they are the largest of the northern phocids with light brown fur, square fore flippers and long blonde vibrissae (whiskers) giving them a bearded appearance and from which they derive their name. In Nares Strait, bearded seals were most often found hauled out on the ice, only moving to lift their large heads and give the vessel a lethargic glance as we passed. Within the fjord, the most common marine mammals have been the ringed seal, one of the smallest of the pinnipeds whose name derived from the characteristic ringed pattern on the pelage. I have spotted ringed seals most often along the glacier face close to the melt water streams with a few hauled out on the ice. As there have been few systematic studies on marine mammals in this part of the world, I am thrilled to be here and have the opportunity to collect data on their presence.


Bearded Seal Nares Strait


Hooded seal

Juvenile hooded seal (Cystophora cristata) hauled out in Nares Strait

My personal wish for this expedition is to see (and hopefully photograph) a narwhal, the unicorn of the sea, legendary due to its preference for remote and inaccessible habitats. However, anyone who spends time studying the ocean and its inhabitants must develop a love for its inconsistency, temperamental nature, and leisurely schedule. If there’s anything that marine mammal observation imparts is patience. One can wait and watch for hours or days only for the excitement of a few fleeting moments during a sighting followed by the rush to identify species, collect sighting and behavioral information, and snap pictures. In an instant it is over with time to reflect, replay and revel in those few moments. Then starts the wait and watch game anew. Patience. Scan the horizon, search for anomalies on the ice but above all remain patient.


Here’s hoping my next post will be news of a narwhal sighting. Until then I will continue to scan the ice from my lofty portside perch, absorb all I can from the phenomenal group of scientists on the Oden, and relish this time at sea.

Written by: Kate Lomac MacNair

2 thoughts on “Every Arctic Voyage Needs a Mammal Observer…

  1. Good to get a sense of the MMO’s day and delight on this expedition. Here’s to her patience, and my tiny wish that her dream of a narwhal sighting is fulfilled. Hello from the mainland.


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