The Arctic is one of the most remote and fascinating regions of the world, and an area that has only ever been accessible to the privileged few. Sail into spectacular fjords and glaciers illuminated by the 24-hour sun; photograph walrus and polar bear; use Zodiac to discover historic sites and call at lands rarely visited before. Wildlife is abundant here, with polar bears, musk ox, walrus, ringed seals, bearded seals, belugas, narwhal, killer whales, bowhead whales, wildfowl, waders and seabirds among the many species you'll find in the Arctic.
Everyone's first impression of the Arctic is that it is a cold, lifeless and empty place... an icy desert. However, it has a wealth of biological detail and is rich in wildlife and flora.
The Arctic is not an actual land mass; its a partially frozen ocean. The area along the ice edge expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Everyone's first impression of the Arctic is that it is a cold, lifeless and empty place... an icy desert. However, it has a wealth of biological detail and is rich in wildlife and flora. The Arctic Circle is located at 66"32' N. Arctic climate, even in the warmest months, does not exceed 50 F. The coldest place in the Arctic is not at the North Pole, but in Siberia.
The people native to the coastal regions of Labrador, Greenland, the Northwest Territories, Alaska and Siberia, have many cultural traits in common. The word "Eskimo" comes from eskipot, an Algonquian word meaning "an eater of raw flesh." Another widely used term is Inuit, which really refers specifically to the Eskimos of the eastern Canadian Arctic. In the Bering Sea region, Eskimos prefer to be called "Yup'ik," while the North Slope Alaska Eskimos prefer "Inupiat." Each have different languages and dialects. Below is an outline of the cultural history.
About 4,000 years ago, the earliest inhabitants of the Arctic entered the coasts of Alaska. They had Siberian origins.
The Independence I, Pre-Dorset & Dorset Cultures
The "Independence I" people lived in small isolated bands and hunted musk ox. Pre-Dorset people were sedentary, deriving their food from seal, walrus and caribou. Around A.D. 1000 the Dorset population occupied a huge geographic triangle bounded by Victoria Island, Ellesmere Is., Greenland and Newfoundland.
The Denbigh and Ipiutak Cultures
The Denbigh culture, fished and hunted caribou. The Ipiutak culture had a settlement of 600 houses at Point Hope. They buried their dead in a large cemetery along with elaborately carved facemasks. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the islands in the Bering Strait were perfecting techniques of open-sea hunting for walrus and whale.
The Thule Culture
By 1000 AD, Thule people spread over all the coasts from Alaska to Canada. They used umiaks to take bowhead whales. Their houses, clustered in groups of 6-30, were heated with lamp bowls filled with whale oil. The Thules were also remarkably gadget-oriented, creating clever tools and devices of bone, antler, ivory and stone.
The "Little Ice Age"
The end of the 18th century brought the intense cold of the "Little Ice Age." Norse settlers of Greenland, no longer able to farm, died out. In eastern Arctic, with a diminished dependence on whaling, the Thule people left their permanent houses for temporary villages on the sea ice. They concentrated on breathing-hole hunting and developed an emphasis on locally available animals such as walrus, beluga, narwhal and caribou, that ultimately led to the "tribes" of the modern Inuit.
In the late 19th century, whalers came to the Arctic. The Inuit learned how to hunt with guns, knit and dance Scottish reels. The whalers also introduced them to liquor and European diseases, and with no immunity, natives died by the hundreds. The whaling industry disappeared, and fur became the new draw. Permanent trading posts and towns were established. Catholic missionaries arrived and replaced many of the Inuit's traditional rituals and beliefs with those dictated by the church.
Arctic People Today
As Canadian, European and American exploration and whaling increased, the traditional Inuit way of life diminished to the point that very little was left by 1960. Wooden boats and outboard motors replaced the kayak and umiak. Rifles, replaced harpoons, skidoos replaced dog sleds and prefab houses replaced snow houses. Today, most of the Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Greenlanders live in villages or towns.
Arctic Explorer History
Over 15,000 years ago, peoples migrated over land bridges into what is today Siberia. From the late 16th to the late 18th centuries came whaling and explorers such as Willem Barents, Henry Hudson, Peter the Great and Captain James Cook. Adolf Nordenskjold and Roald Amundsen were pioneers of the exploration of the Northwest Passage. In the late 19th century, Fridtjof Nansen's ship, the Fram, came close to reaching the North Pole. It wasn't until 1968 that an American team led by Ralph Plaisted reached the North Pole.
The Arctic, where cold and warm water masses intermingle, has some of the world's best fishing grounds.
Arctic Flora & Fauna
At first glance, the Arctic landscape appears desolate and lifeless. However, there is a surprising richness in vegetation: lichens, mosses, grasses and flowering plants cover the ground. This plant life has overcome the extreme harsh conditions of cold, sterile soil, abrasively high winds and frequent freeze-thaw fluctuations. Arctic seas, partially frozen so much of the time, would also seem to be too inhospitable for large concentrations of life. Yet, Arctic waters teem with marine life on a prodigious scale that vastly out produces more benign tropical seas. Nutrients form diatoms and other single-celled life, which is the base of the marine food chain. These in turn feed zooplankton, shrimp-like krill and squid. The Arctic, where cold and warm water masses intermingle, has some of the world's best fishing grounds. Of 100 different fish species, cod and herring are among the most important. So, both land and sea forms have adapted to sustain themselves. But since the environment is relatively young and because there is a limited selection of habitats, the numbers of species is limited.
The most abundant woody plants are several species of willow and birch. To overcome the harsh conditions prevailing about ten months of the year, their growth is very slow. For example, a willow root only one inch in diameter may be several centuries old. Preparation for propogation may stretch over years, with energy being collected and stored until the bud is formed before the flower is eventually ready to open. In considering this prolonged struggle against extremely difficult conditions, one is obliged to think carefully before collecting or damaging an Arctic plant.
The most common Arctic birds are the Murre and the Dovekie (both are Auks). Dovekie nest in huge colonies among the rocks. There are also three species of puffin: the Atlantic, Horned, and Tufted Birds. Only a few species: the Ptarmigan, Raven, Ivory and Ross Gulls, and Snowy Owl, spend the winter in the north. Many types of gulls are present: Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Sabine\'s Gull, Thayer\'s Gull, Herring Gull and Ivory Gull. By far the most abundant gull of the Arctic is the Kittiwake, which nest in teeming colonies on the sea cliffs. The Arctic Tern has a circumpolar distribution. Some individuals migrate all the way from their breeding sites in the Arctic to spend several months in Antarctica, an extraordinary 22,000 mile round trip in the course of a year. Closely related to the gulls and terns are three skuas (also known as jaegers): the Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed. During the prolific summer, shorebirds such as plovers and sandpipers can be found as well as many species of ducks, geese, Loons and Red-breasted Merganser.
Arctic Land Mammals
Several species of lemming, small rodents, occur in the tundra and are the vital link in the Arctic food chain. The Arctic fox is largely a scavenger, often following polar bears in winter and eating the leftover scraps. Also found are: Arctic hare, shorttail weasel, wolverine and the gray, or timber wolf. The largest predator the polar bear. This symbol of the Arctic has suffered greatly from hunting, but there is now hope that the partial protection it is receiving will bring it back from the endangered list. It is solitary except during the mating season or when the mother is tending cubs. It is a powerful swimmer, and feeds mainly on seals, which it usually stalks on the ice floes. The two large land herbivores are the caribou and muskox. Many Inuit communities are dependent on the caribou for meat for themselves and their dogs, and the skins for bedding, clothing, and tents. Caribou travel in large herds that are always on the move, migrating as much as 1,000 kilometers.
Arctic Marine Mammals
Many species of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) occur in Arctic seas but most of them have been so drastically reduced in numbers by over-exploitation they are now usually encountered singly or in very small groups. The narwhal and beluga whale both occur in shallow coastal waters in the summer, when they are most likely to be hunted. The male narwhal has a counter-clockwise spirally twisted tusk reaching a maximum length of eight feet. Since this is a valued by tourists as a curio, the animal is being greatly over-hunted. The bowhead whale is found only in Arctic seas, close to the ice edges. Its enormous head is more than one-half the animal\'s total length. It is hunted by the Inuit on a limited basis. Of the seven species of seals occurring in the Arctic, the harbor, ringed, harp, and bearded are the only ones of current interest to Inuit hunters. The rest, ribbon, gray and hooded, are so rare they are not often encountered. The ringed, the smallest Arctic seal, is of considerable economic importance as a food source for the coastal people and their dogs. Both the ringed and the bearded seal spend much of their time on the pack ice. The walrus is also of great importance; its hide can be used for thongs and skins for boats, and its meat was once prized by the Inuit, but is not an important food source anymore. The tusks are of considerable value for ivory carvings. Walrus generally gather in groups; they feed on the bottom in fairly shallow water on clams and other mollusks. One can read more about the Flora and Fauna of the High Arctic by Dennis Puleston.
Arctic Conservation Guidelines
Avoid disturbing wildlife and their habitats. One of the most popular activities for travelers is viewing wildlife, but life in the North is harsh. The brief summer is the only time animals and plants have to reproduce and prepare for the long winter. Consequently, they have few energy reserves to waste on recovery from human impact.
- Avoid trampling plants.
- View wildlife in natural habitats, don't force close encounters.
- Watch your step. Keep to established paths when possible.
- View animals from a distance of at least 15 feet.
- Approach wildlife slowly when taking photographs. Do not cause distress. Never harass wildlife for the sake of photography.
- Take care not to startle or chase any bird from its nest.
- If an animal shows signs of distress or avoidance, move away.
- Look but do not touch. Observe natural behavior in its natural state.
- Avoid disturbing marine mammal haulouts, wolf and fox dens, seabird colonies, and goose molting areas.
- Do not collect natural "souvenirs" such as shells, rocks and feathers.
- Do not litter!
- Do not transport any seeds, insects, spores or live material to or from islands. Do not take food ashore, clean sand and mud from shoes before returning to the ship, and check clothing for seeds.
- Keep noise levels to a minimum.
Respect Archaeological & Historical Remains
Many of the areas we visit have been occupied for millennia by people. They have left many signs of their passing and sites of previous occupation are often easily accessible and unprotected. Do not disturb archeological or historic sites or collect souvenirs. This is imperative! Even moving objects can destroy their contextual information, erasing much of their scientific significance.
Respect Local Peoples
Tourists are guests in other peoples' countries. Treat locals as you wish to be treated in your home. Gifts and barter items can be a wonderful means of appreciation and payment; they can also be patronizing and overbearing if selected or offered poorly. Useful or beautiful items are generally best, especially if they represent the crafts of your region. Ask before you take photographs of people, their dwellings or an activity. Avoid giving gifts like candy or pencils to individual children. Do not buy ivory, whalebone and sealskin products in foreign countries. Transporting marine mammal parts or products across international boundaries is illegal.