National Geographic: Arctic Kingdom - Life at the Edge (1995)

Arctic Kingdom: Life At the Edge
In the far northern reaches
of planet Earth
lies an alien sea of ice
its waves frozen in time
in darkness, in uncompromising cold
It's winter on the Arctic Ocean
But a great power is returning to
conquer this frozen sea
The sun's rays touch the ice
and like a living thing
it responds
As the ice surrenders to
the rising sun
it becomes a world in motion
a shifting stage full of danger
and drama
Where creatures are trapped
between moving sheets
Stranded on the frozen waters
Caught in the struggle to live in one
of the harshest places on earth
And where the ice meets the open sea
the sun awakens a world of strange
and glorious life
This is the Arctic under the sun
a short
brilliant season of survival a miracle
and a resurrection at the edge
of the ice
After three months of
winter's hard darkness
the first light of spring spreads a glow
across the ice It's dawn in the Arctic
in the season of eternal sun
A lone predator stalks the ice
in the early light
A polar bear is on the prowl
in different to the killing cold
Even in temperatures of fifty below
he doesn't hibernate
The bear is the supreme master
of winter on the ice
He can grow to seventeen hundred
pounds of hunting power
but his life depends on
just one creature
The ringed seal takes a quick breath
and returns to his world below
the ice
He, too, has endured all winter
just beneath the feet of his
mortal enemy
It's April. A female is also
on the ice
bringing her cubs out hunting
for the first time
They were born four long months ago
and since then, their mother's
had nothing to eat
Her sense of smell is so keen
that she can detect her prey
through several feet of snow
and half a mile away
She seeks out ridges
where drifting snow
covers the breathing hole of
a ringed seal
Inside this protective snow cap
a seal has dug al lair
She catches his scent
The seal rests but only sleeps
a few seconds at a time
its sharp hearing tuned to danger
A tense contest of the senses begins
Even the top predator on the ice
misses 19 times out of 20
And yet, the mother bear
will need to kill
at least two seals a week to keep
her cubs alive
The seal is safe for the moment
but each new trip to the surface
to breathe could end in another ambush
It's an oversized game of cat
and mouse
The bear eats mostly the blubber
licking bits of fat from the snow
A stealthy white shadow has been
following the bear
An Arctic fox
For days he has been tracking
the great hunter
crossing miles of ice in hopes
of leftovers from a kill
When hunting is good, the bear
leaves a feast behind
The fox finds a morsel and
buries it a precaution
against an unpredictable future
The sun now skims the horizon
and will not set again
for four months
Day by day
it begins to take control of the ice
in the seasonal tug of war
between darkness and light
But for nearly half the year
the far north is angled away
from the sun
and sleeps in the dark shadow
of winter
Left in the deep-freeze of space
the Arctic seas lie covered with
six million square miles of ice
As the year progresses
the planet swings around the sun
Light returns to the top
of the world
With 24-hour sunshine
the polar ice begins to retreat
By spring, the ice edge has receded
to a tangle of islands
in the high Canadian Arctic
and to the entrance of Lancaster Sound
An ice-breaker cuts the first breech
of the year
through six feet of solid ice
It brings goods to and from villages
and mining outposts 500 miles north
of the Arctic Circle
For the ship, the ice is an obstacle
For some, it is home
The Init have carved life from
this place for 4,000 years
The ice is their world
and spring promises a rich season
of hunting ahead
The ice itself has been guarding
a secret world
But now the crystal fortress
begins to crack
its walls pierced by light
In the shallows forty feet below
the sun reveals a garden of
unexpected color
Golden sea anemones...
bright orange starfish
and small crustaceans awaken
from a winter trance
Overhead, the skylight of ice glows
green with life
A vast pasture of algae now blooms
on its surface
spreading across the sea for
hundreds of miles
Countless young fish
and shrimp like creatures come
here to graze
These in turn become food for
staggering numbers of Arctic cod
Protected by the shield of ice
some half million tons of cod flourish
in Lancaster Sound
All this abundance is solar powered
As light floods the water, it sets
off an explosion of life
Great stores of food can now
be reached
where the ice meets open water
It's May, and animals begin
to gather
for this annual feast of spring
Thick-billed murres fly in
from the North Atlantic to plunder
the cold waters for cod
They flock to Lancaster Sound
in the hundreds of thousands
Murres are uncertain aviators
Their true medium is water
Once beneath the waves
they're the Arctic version
of a penguin
With short
flipper like wings they dive
nearly 300 feet
for three minutes at a time
On the way back up
air trapped in their
feathers expands
They rocket to the surface
in a jet trail of bubbles
At the ice edge nearby
a polar bear scents
the shifting wind
As though navigating by satellite
he continues to hunt
across the same range
even as the ice turns into ocean
Beneath his fur
the white bear has jet black skin
to absorb heat
from the sun when he's on the surface
In the near freezing water
four inches of blubber keep
him warm and afloat
He's not above taking a bird or two
But the murres take no notice
and prepare to leave
for they have an urgent
appointment to keep
Timing is everything here
and the schedule is set
by the sun
The murres head for land
The short breeding season
has begun
and for those who come late
there'll be no second chance
Their destination is a lonely
outpost in Lancaster Sound
...the towering cliffs of Prince
Leopold Island
Half a million seabirds crowd onto
these rocky ledges
one thousand feet above the sea
The murres alone number
almost 200,000
Vicious fighting breaks out
as the murres battle
for the safest nest sites
They lay only a single egg
pear shaped to prevent
it from rolling off
the narrow rock shelf
The stronger, more aggressive birds
win sites midway down the cliff
leaving the weaker birds at the top
where they're most vulnerable
An Arctic fox has been stranded here
as the ice retreated from the island
His white winter fur has been replaced
by a sleek, brown coat
A castaway for the summer
he hunts alone on an island of birds
He heads for the cliffs the only
place to find food on the island
Faced with a dangerous thief
the birds abandon their eggs
And though they can lay another
a late season chick will not survive
The fox steals all the eggs
he can reach
but he'll need dozens each week
to stay alive
Some he stashes in the cold ground
There will be lean days ahead
It's June. A hundred miles
from the island
a fleet of white whales has arrived
at the ice edge
belugas hunting for cod
The sea is suddenly alive with sound
This chirping
white chorus emerges
from feeding grounds beneath
the frozen sea
like a gathering of polar ghosts
With no dorsal fin to impede
their icy travels
these are true Arctic whales
The belugas' rich symphony
of sounds hints
at the complexity of their lives
Their sonar may be the most
sophisticated of any whale
Navigating under miles of ice
they bounce clicks off shifting floes
using a kind of "sound imaging"
to master their world
Their melodies pulse from
their rounded foreheads
the frequencies fine tuned
like a focused beam of light
piercing the blue depths
The bonds between them are strong
A mother and calf will swim side
by side for three years
Shadowy gray at birth
they only gradually turn as perfectly
white as the surrounding ice
The sun is riding high now
Strong winds from the open sea
unleash their power against the ice
Beaten by wind and wave
weakened by sun and current
the ice fractures and begins
to split apart
Immense cracks open behind the
leading edge of the ice
These "leads" extend for miles
opening up new feeding areas
and hunting grounds
The Inuit are experts at navigating
the tricky ice fields of spring
It's a skill born of necessity
of the ancient
need to hunt on this
ever changing surface
Olyuk knows how to read the ice
men and machines are sometimes lost
In the old days
entire hunting parties could
disappear without a trace
They are now sixty miles from home
They are hoping the trip will end
in a successful hunt
but it may take days
Not far away, one of the most
aggressive animals
in the Arctic hauls out to rest
adult walruses
heavily armored with tusks
and skin that is one inch thick
Their skulls are massive
and backed by a body weighing
one ton
they can bash through nine
inches of ice
Out of the water
their only enemies are polar bears
and human hunters
The walrus feed on vast beds of
clams buried 200 feet below
in the muddy sea floor
Each one can eat thousands of
clams in a single meal
And the mud harbors less obvious
but just as deadly predators
A carnivorous snail begins a slow
methodical attack
It smells the clam hiding in the mud
and tries to penetrate the tightly
closed shell
But the clam can defend itself
with a strong kick from
its single foot
Even stranger creatures patrol
the dark ooze
They thrive in the near freezing
waters of the Arctic feeding
on the remains of the dead
...and on each other
Overhead, the surface is warming up
Frozen salt water melts first
and from deep inside the ice
salty brine begins to drain away
Plumes of super cool
salty liquid spill downward out
of holes in the ice
freezing the waters just beneath
Hollow stalactites build up around
the draining brine
some reaching three feet in length
The waves continue to hammer
at the ice
and the edge gives way under
the relentless assault
Wind and strong currents push
ice floes together
Massive blocks pile up and
over each other
building miniature mountain ranges
In the wake of the shifting ice
giants come to fee
The bowhead whale is named
for its great curving jaw
A favorite target of whalers
it has never recovered from
two centuries of slaughter
Numbering only in the hundreds
bowheads in the eastern Arctic
make their last stand
Reaching 60 feet in length
it's the largest animal
in the Arctic seas
Yet the bowhead comes to
feed on the smallest
Energized by the touch of the sun
the depths now pulse with millions
of minute animals
They seem electrified
their transparent bodies glimmer
with iridescent light
More liquid than solid
these delicate drifters are
miracles of survival
wrapped in enchanting beauty
But to live here, they must also kill
A jelly trails its long tentacles
snaring a copepod
then reeling it in to its death
These tiny hunters float in a world
of their own
unaware of the leviathan that could
devour their entire universe
The bowhead sweeps through the water
like a living trawl net
Between the cavernous jaws
dark sheets called baleen filter
the water
collecting thousands of
small creatures
Its enormous white tongue will
scrape the baleen clean
harvesting the sea one giant
mouthful at a time
The sun is winning control of the ice
and the surface pools with melt water
Temperatures now reach a balmy
Dripping water measures the
fleeting season
the sound of summer ticking away
Fresh leads break into the
remaining ice
The Arctic's most intriguing creature
moves in from the sea
The narwhal - with its ivory tusk
a living tooth up to ten feet long
The whales converge along
the narrow highway
This is what Olyuk has been
looking for
Hunting is at the heart of
Inuit culture
a way of life and a skill still
passed down from father to son
It's a proud link to the past
and the only way to live off the
land in the Arctic
Today, the Inuit are still allowed
to hunt whales
but their take is strictly controlled
Yet Olyuk remembers the not
so distant days
when hunting meant the difference
between life and death
They have landed a female only males
have a tusk
Whale skin is especially nutritious
high in vitamin C
Without such a diet
the Inuit would have suffered
from the scurvy
which plagued many Arctic expeditions
Eaten raw, it's a delicacy
called "muktuk."
In the still twilight of midnight
the narwhals joust a slow
stately ritual of mythic beasts
The purpose of their strange single
tusk remains a mystery
Like the peacock's tail and
the lion's mane
it may serve as a banner of
male prowess
It could be a weapon
But it's the stuff of legend
In the Middle Ages
the tusks were sold as unicorn horns
for ten times their weight in gold
The sea ice is flooded now
although beneath the water
the ice is still several feet thick
Out on the melting surface
an abandoned ringed seal has
lost her bearings
She has wandered away from
her breathing hole
and cannot find her way back
Now, she is trapped above the ice an
easy target
for a hungry polar bear
And if she cannot return to
the sea beneath her
she will starve
The young seal is now exhausted
but luck finally leads her to a hole
in the ice
She is safe, but now she's in
unknown territory
a long way from her familiar network
of breathing holes
She won't stray far for a while
All around her the ice is changing
The pasture of algae
that once blanketed the surface has
sloughed off
and joined together in flowing
ribbons of green
Long tendrils reach out to
absorb light
and nutrients from the
passing currents
A new lead has opened in the ice
and a pod of narwhals comes
streaming into the crack
They usually travel in small numbers
but when fishing is good
hundreds may come together
As they enter the crack
these specialized hunters
take a risk
The opening unlocks a rich store
of Arctic cod
but the ice is still shifting
Without warning, the lead closes off
The whales are trapped
The entire pod must surface to breathe
in this small pool of open water
They bob up and down
in a crush of bodies
careful not to wound each other
with their tusks
If the hole closes over completely
the narwhals will have to make a
run for open water
if they don't find it
they will suffocate and die
Then suddenly, as unpredictably
a it closed
the lead reopens
and the whales are free
High off the cliffs of
Prince Leopold Island
fulmars and kittiwakes ride
the wild winds
Even gusts of 40 miles per hour
present no problem
for these aerial acrobats
Landing is the tricky part
There is new life in the murre colony
The adult birds are busy plying back
and forth to the sea
returning with cod for their young
The chick will need to triple
its weight over the next three weeks
and feeds round the clock
in the constant daylight
At the top of the cliff
glaucous gull chicks are hungry too
But gulls don't limit their
diet to fish
This one goes hunting closer to home
looking for an unprotected chick
It returns with a grisly catch
For the fox, these are hungry times
Egg laying is over and the chicks
have hatched out of his reach
He has only his store of buried eggs
to see him through
High summer finally reaches the Arctic
The last remnants of ice swirl near
the shores of Lancaster Sound
The frozen sea is broken at last
drifting in tattered pieces
on the current
Moving inshore are the gleaming
white shapes of belugas
They return by the hundreds to the
same inlets they frequent each year
Their smooth, white skin has turned
yellow and wrinkled
It's time to molt
On the rocky bottom of the shallows
the whales scrape off their old
weathered skin with a rejuvenating rub
Terns wheel overhead and dive
for bits of molted skin
As the tide turns, the whales retreat
into deeper water
But one young beluga has pushed too
far inshore
The benevolent sun now becomes
his greatest enemy
He could easily sunburn
and out of the cold water
he could overheat
The others can do nothing
The rocks have cut his sensitive skin
All he can do is wait for
the incoming tide
With one last surge
the young beluga recovers his freedom
It's only August, but autumn is closing
in on the murre colony
The chicks are just three weeks
old still unable to fly
Yet the time has come to leave
the island
Escorted by its father
a chick makes its way
through a gauntlet of hostile adults
still defending their ledges
Driven by irresistible instinct
the chick prepares to make an
incredible leap
from the thousand foot cliff
With its father close behind
he plummets to the waters below
For the next eight weeks they'll
drift southward
as the young murres grow the feathers
they need to finally take to the air
The fox is left alone
His stash of eggs is gone
and he may starve before he
can escape the island
The moon now looks down on Lancaster
Sound the cold
pale face of the coming winter
All across the Arctic, animals
are on the move
fleeing the coming freeze
The cold is returning to claim
these seas
The great bowheads depart
as their food supply begins to dwindle
in the fading light
Slowly, the surface begins to transform
crystals congeal into grease ice
then thicken into pancake ice
The season of the sun is over
Soon, winter and the white bear will
stalk the ice once more
Cold howls across the empty expanse
of frozen sea
Darkness deepens
The bear settles in to stay
and the Arctic turns once more toward
the dark night of space