“Ultima Thule” was the name that European geographers, beginning with the ancient Greeks, used to refer to the unknowable northern reaches of the world, beyond the navigable seas and shrouded in mystery. Some believed it was a blessed land of fertile soil and gentle breezes, more often it was imagined as a forbidding and frozen wasteland. The reality is somewhere between the two, as travelers on Ponant’s 17-day Ultima Thule expedition cruisewhich makes its way around the Baffin Sea, the body of water between the west coast of Greenland and the northeast coast of Canada, will discover.
While there are frozen glaciers and the magnetic North Pole is among the stops, the Arctic summer is a brief period when the tundra comes to life—you will soon learn a new way of looking at the world, as you keep your eyes open for small signs of life: fireweed, lupine, and sweetbroom that bloom under the pale light of the midnight sun as well as arctic foxes and hares. It’s not that all the animals here are small, however—this is also the land of musk oxen, polar bears, elephant seals, and whales.
Ponant’s expedition will take you to a world of icebergs and vast horizons and, at the height of the Arctic summer, of days that literally never end. The Far North long presented the ultimate challenge to European, as well as American and Canadian expeditions—it has been described as “the horizontal Everest.” At the same time, it has simply been home to Inuit for millennia, and the itinerary includes opportunities to learn about life in this unusual part of the world from them.
The port you will visit today, Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton Island), sits off the east coast of Baffin Island on the other side of the Baffin Sea across from Greenland. It is in Nunavut, the newest and largest territory of Canada, which separated from the Northwest Territory in 1999. The community of the same name as the island is home to some 600 people and with its small landing strip it’s often used as a stop for pilots of small planes who are en route to Europe. The town’s crafts store is a good place to shop for traditional Inuit clothing, carvings, prints, and jewelry, but the main attractions of Qikiqtarjuaq are its wildlife and nearby Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island.
Narwhals, orca whales, walruses, and seals are common here, as well as polar bears (in the fall). Auyuittuq National Park contains more than 7,370 square miles of fjords and glaciers—its Inuit name translates as the “land that never melts.” It’s an epic landscape of soaring peaks, sheer cliffs, and rivers and streams rushing with melt water at summer.
Kivitoo, on the east coast of Baffin Island, is a haunting stop on the itinerary that you will visit with a naturalist guide. The Inuit camp was used as a whaling station until it was abandoned in the 1920s, but metal tanks that were used to store whale oil and a number of buildings still stand in this small ghost town on the arctic heath. Walrus skulls and the graves of whalers are also remnants of that period. Kivitoo continued to be used as a camp by several Inuit families until 1962. After the drowning of several hunters proved devastating to the community, the survivors decided as a group to move to Qikiqtarjuaq.
Today, Aulitiving Island, at the entrance of Isabella Bay, is abandoned but it was long an important whaling station and Arctic Harbour still has some traces from that period, including the graves of whalers. Your stop on the island will provide an opportunity to explore the arctic tundra landscape on a hike to the highest point of the island. At 1,345 feet, it has views of the entire island and Niginganiq (also known as Isabella Bay).
The Niginganiq National Wildlife Area includes the bay, its shorelines, and extends out to sea for a distance of 12 nautical miles. You’ll explore the nature reserve on L’Austral today. Niginganiq was designated as a protected area in 2010 principally because of its population of bowhead whales. Up to 100 of them have been spotted in the bay at one time, making it the largest concentration of bowheads in Canada. There are, however, a number of other animals that can also be spotted in the bay, including ringed seals, narwhals, and polar bears (in the fall). While the Inuit name translates as “the place where fog sits,” on clear days bird sightings may include king eiders, long-tailed ducks, dovekies, and northern fulmars.