STEM Lessons for College Students

Bowhead Whales and Polar Bears, Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area

Ninginganiq (Isabella Bay) National Wildlife Area, Nunavut, Canada

The Inuktitut word ‘Ninginganiq’ translates roughly as ‘the place where fog sits’.

Clyde River, Northeast Baffin, Qikiqtaaluk

September 3, 2018 – Day 8 of Quark’s Northwest Passage Voyage

The Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area, proposed by the community of Clyde River, was designated in 2010 and is the largest NWA in Canada measuring over 336,000 hectares. Located 120 km south of Clyde River, on the northeast coast of Baffin Island, Nunavut, the NWA includes the shoreline and islands of Isabella Bay as well as the adjacent ocean out to 12 nautical miles from shore.

It provides an important marine habitat, creating ideal conditions for Bowhead Whales, particularly in the summer. Up to 100 bowheads have been recorded at one time in Isabella Bay, making this the single largest known concentration for this species anywhere in Canada. Bowhead Whales have been assessed as threatened in Canada. Only subsistence hunting by the Inuit population is allowed.

BOWHEAD WHALE (Balaena mysticetus)

Bowhead Whales are large and powerful marine mammals. Adult whales can reach a length of 45-60 feet. They have massive bow-shaped skulls, that can come up through ice over 8 inches (20 cm) thick and crack the ice with the crown of their heads.

They navigate and communicate under extensive ice fields using their sophisticated acoustic sensory skills.

While some of the bowhead population moves westward through Lancaster Sound in late June and early July, others, mainly adults and large adolescents, remain off the east coast of Baffin Island for the summer and fall.

Bowhead Whales live only in arctic and sub-arctic waters — they don’t migrate to warmer waters for reproduction. Bowheads were an early whaling target, and the Baffin Island sub-population, once down to a few hundred individuals, is listed as endangered. Recent surveys over the last decade, although they vary wildly, indicate a population rebound to several thousand.

Bowhead Whales have no dorsal fin, but sport the largest mouth of any animal. They are not as gymnastic as humpbacks, but do show some fluke when diving deep. They are known to live at least 200 years.

Bowhead Whales are baleen whales that feed on zooplankton, which includes copepods, euphauslids, mysids, and other invertebrates and fish.

POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)

“‘Nanuq” in Inuktitut, Polar Bears roam the floe edge, hunting for seals and other prey. Males can grow up to 10 feet in height, and weigh over 1,500 pounds.

Canada is home to about 16,000 polar bears, which is approximately two-thirds of the world’s total estimated population of 26,000 individuals. The global population is divided into 19 subpopulations, of which 13 are managed or co-managed by Canada.

Over 90% of the polar bears in Canada occur in two of Canada’s northernmost territories: Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Polar bears are a circumpolar species that require sea ice for various life history events and feeding. Wherever there is sea ice, either seasonal or annual, polar bears can be found. Their distribution depends mainly on the distribution of seals and the productivity of the area they inhabit, but is also affected by sea ice movements.

There are several polar bear subpopulations that are forced ashore during the summer months, such as the bears of the Hudson Bay complex, and the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay areas. These bears come ashore whenever the sea ice retreats and melts – they conserve energy throughout the summer and remain in a lethargic state with a reduced metabolism.

In thick and closed sea ice it is hard for seals to maintain breathing holes; consequently, there will not be too many bears in the area. Seals, and the bears that prey upon them, are typically found near cracks or leads, floe edges, ice floes, polynyas, and consolidated chunks of ice and pressure ridges.

Polar bears are faced with various stressors: contamination, climatic changes, resource development and exploration, increased shipping through the Arctic, and harvest.

Almost all of these pollutants originate in the south, and are carried through water and air currents to the Arctic.

Polar bears are apex predators, and their contaminant load is determined by way of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Contaminants are always a concern because people in Nunavut consume polar bear meat.

A higher frequency of ship traffic passing through the Northwest Passage can be expected with a decline of sea ice. Increased shipping traffic with ice-breakers can change ice floe size, which in turn can affect important feeding and breeding habitats of polar bears and seals.

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