In the first photo, all you can see is pitch darkness, except for a fuzzy white line at the bottom of the frame. Then the white fuzz gets bigger—and rounder. Finally, the picture resolves into a plump polar bear investigating something on the ground; then suddenly, there are two bears!
These photos were captured in October of 2021 by a camera trap on Gilmour Island, the biggest of the 24 islands that make up Arqvilliit (also known as Ottawa Islands). Arqvilliit, the last destination of the Pristine Seas Expedition, means “the place where you see bowhead whales” in Inuktitut. But bowhead whales aren’t the only thing you can find there: this part of Eastern Hudson Bay is an Arctic biodiversity hotspot, home to eider ducks, walrus, and—as you can see—polar bears.
Nunavik Inuit have lived and harvested in this region since time immemorial, and now they are working to protect it through the establishment of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). The Arqvilliit IPCA team is led by Inuit leaders from the Northern Village of Inukjuak, the Anguvigak Local Nunavimmi Umajulirijiit Katutjiqatigiinninga (LNUK) and members of the public, as well as staff members of Oceans North. Gathering more data and raising awareness is a critical part of establishing a new protected area, and the Arqvilliit IPCA team was excited to partner with the Pristine Seas expedition, which has been contributing to Indigenous-led conservation projects across Nunatsiavut, Hudson Bay and James Bay.
Polar bears are the main target species for conservation on the islands. However, to inform conservation plans, managers need to know how many bears there are and which of the 13 Canadian subpopulations they belong to. A simple, non-invasive way of doing this is by pairing “hair traps” with trail cameras. Hair traps are boxes fitted with brushes that have an attractive scent inside: curious bears put their head in the box, and the brushes collect hairs without affecting the bear. Researchers can use DNA from the hairs to do a genetic analysis and identify individual bears. Pairing camera traps with hair traps, as was used to capture the images of the two bears, helps to identify individuals who may be caught in traps more than once as well as assess the bears’ overall fitness, sex and approximate age class.
Last year, four crew members and the project coordinator for the Arqvilliit IPCA Establishment Project departed Inukjuak on the Arvik, a 35-foot boat, for a five-day monitoring trip. The 2021 field season was mostly exploratory: the team gathered baseline data about the islands, collected information on target species such as polar bears and eider ducks, and started to catalogue the biodiversity of the islands. This work included the monitoring of polar bear presence and population genetics, conducting boat-based surveys of the islands, observing biodiversity and mapping habitat.
This year, with the help of the Pristine Seas team, more hair traps will be set up, drones will be used to survey the lands, diving teams will conduct underwater surveys, and boat-based surveys will allow for the deployment of remotely operated vehicles to survey the near-shore seafloor. Baited cameras and drop cameras will also be used in deeper marine areas between islands to see what lies below. The monitoring work will help everyone understand more about the marine environment of Arqvilliit, and the documentary will help amplify the voices of Inukjuak community leaders and Nunavimmiut about their vision and efforts toward Inuit-led marine protections and stewardship in Nunavik.
Follow along with the expedition on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and stay tuned for more! You can also read up on the previous legs of the expedition in Nunatsiavut, Western Hudson Bay, and James Bay.