Waiting for walruses

Bowhead whales in Canada, commercial whaling in Iceland and great white sharks off Mexico get Mark Carwardine all animated

5 mins

I’ve just frittered away a week in bed. I was supposed to be standing on an ice floe surrounded by bowhead whales and walruses but, instead, donned eight layers of clothing and curled up in a heavy polar sleeping bag. I was waiting, impatiently, for an unremitting Arctic storm to pass.

I know the Arctic isn’t renowned for its good weather, but I hadn’t expected to witness half of its annual allowance of rain, snow and wind in my first week. Next time I think I’ll forget the golden rule of packing – take half as much clothing and twice as much money as you think you’ll need – and throw in a few extra pairs of thick socks.

I was in Nunavut – the vast area of Canada that takes up a surprisingly large amount of the top half of the planet – about an hour’s skidoo ride from Igloolik. This is probably the best place in the world for watching bowhead whales, which arrive around 21June and leave when the ice breaks up in mid-July. It’s also teeming with walruses for most of the summer. But lying in bed, listening to the howling of the wind and the huskies, I might as well have been on the other side of the planet.

Then again, I’ve had so many near-misses with wildlife over the years (I’d love to write a book called You Should Have Been Here Last Week) that, deep down, I suspected that the wait might be worthwhile. Sure enough, on the last day, the weather cleared.

Suddenly I was standing on that magnificent ice floe in brilliant sunshine, with bowhead whales cruising past just a few yards away. Then I was face-to-face with walruses huddled together on their own magnificent ice floes. I’d seen everything I had come to see in a single day and the agonising week in bed was almost (but not quite) a distant memory.

Still on a high, but exhausted and tired after so many sleepless nights in camp, I checked in at tiny Igloolik airport for the first leg of my long journey home, via Iqaluit and Ottawa. The man behind the check-in desk looked at me, studied my passport, then looked at me again. “You’ve aged a little”, he said.

Whaling in Iceland

If anything has hurled me into old age in recent months, it’s been Iceland. I view the land of ice and fire as my second home, but I’m so outraged and disappointed by its decision to resume whaling that I haven’t been this year for the first time since the early 1980s. No fewer than 25 minke whales were killed during June and the first few days of July – and there are plans to kill many more in years to come.

I do feel guilty about staying at home. After all, the Icelandic Tourist Industry Association has entered the fray on the side of the whales – and the whalewatch industry, which makes the whales worth more alive than dead, deserves all the help it can get. But I just couldn’t bring myself to carry on as if nothing had happened.

I still remember the last time whales were killed in Iceland (I actually watched the last one being hauled ashore and flensed in the summer of 1989) and I helped to organise Iceland’s first commercial whalewatch trip just two years later. The recent U-turn is a nightmare come true.

Great white distraction

Personally, I find the best way to forget such troubles, for a while at least, is to jump into a sea full of great white sharks. And I’ll be doing just that later in September at the remote island of Guadalupe, 240km off the Pacific coast of Mexico.

This is probably the best place in the world for observing and photographing great whites underwater and, since my first visit a few years ago, I’ve become well and truly hooked.

The season runs to the end of November, so there’s still time to change your week in that boring health spa for something far more relaxing.

Zoologist Mark Carwardine is an author, TV presenter and spends much of his time travelling the world in search of wildlife and exploring wild places (www.markcarwardine.com)

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