Monday, August 30, 2010

Newfoundland: Recording Killer Whales for Thousands of Years

Killer Whale Effigy in The Rooms, St. John's
Whales of all shapes and sizes are common in the waters around Newfoundland, but over the past several weeks its the Orcas that are making the news.  There have been at least three separate incidents of orcas hunting and feeding on minke whales captured on film. 

CBC: Orcas hunt minke whale off Newfoundland coast
CBC: Orcas kill minke whale in Trinity Bay
CBC: More video of orcas killing a whale

There are some pretty amazing moments in the videos, although the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been reminding people to give the pods some space while they are hunting, and not pursue them in boats in search of a good video.

Killer Whale Effigy from Port au Choix
People living in Newfoundland have a long history with whales and whale effigies show up in archaeological sites, from time to time.  The killer whale effigy from the Maritime Archaic Indian cemetery at Port au Choix is one of the most iconic artifacts to come from this province.  It dates from 4400-3300 years ago and is carved from stone.   Its believed to be a killer whale because of the prominent dorsal fin - no other whale in the waters around Newfoundland have such pronounced dorsal fins.  You can see how the mouth of the animal was incised on the carving.  There is at least one other stone whale from the site, although its a little smaller and not so well made.

Much more recently, Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk showed us what a Beothuk whale effigy looked like.  Although we don't have a physical example of the piece, Shanawdithit illustrated a series of six "Totems? or Emblems of Mythology" belonging to the Beothuk.  These six pieces were 6 foot long staffs, covered in red ochre and each mounted with a different figure.  One of these figures was a whale tail, and in the notes on the drawing it is named and identified as "ow-as-posh-no-un? Emblematic of the Whales tail, considered the greatest prize by the hunter."

Shanawdithit's drawings of Beothuk staffs - the second from the left is a whale tail

Whale Effigy from North Cove, Newfoundland
There's a third intriguing example of potential whale art in Newfoundland archaeology that comes from North Cove, near Bird Cove on the Northern Peninsula.  Its a chipped stone triangle of rock that doesn't appear to be a functional tool of any kind.  Its not typical of any known tool type from the province.  Its from a Recent Indian context and the site dates between 1200-1000 BP.  Steve Hull, the archaeologist who researched the site for his M.A. at MUN, believes it could be a whale effigy and I think he's probably correct.  Although I can't quite decide whether its a body and dorsal fin like the Port au Choix effigy or if one of the three points could be hafted in a staff as a whale tail, like the staff drawn by Shanawdithit.

Maritime Archaic Indian Killer Whale
Curiously, all three of these examples come from Indian contexts, as opposed to Palaeoeskimo sites.  Of the two groups (Indians and Palaeoeskimos), the Palaeoeskimos are better known for their artwork, but whales don't tend to show up in their carvings or amulets.  On the other hand, the Indian groups in Newfoundland seem to have put some importance in the animals and their form for thousands of years.

Photo Credits:
1,6: Tim Rast
2: Jim Tuck, from The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website
3: Drawing by Shanawdithit
4: Steve Hull
5: Steve Hull (I drew the smiley face and staff on Steve's Photo)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Palaeoeskimo Ivory Mask

This carving is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. The lines on the face may indicate tattoos.

To learn more about Palaeoeskimo art visit the online catalog of the Canadian Museum of Civilization's exhibit: Lost Visions, Forgotten Dreams.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nikon Coolpix P100 Review

Nikon Coolpix P100
This post is a thinly veiled excuse to show a few more pictures from the summer, but I'll build it around a review of the camera I used to take all the photos.  This summer I was shooting with a Nikon Coolpix P100.  This is the third Coolpix that Lori and I have owned - the first one was lost in my luggage by Canadian North, so we bought a Nikon Coolpix P80 to replace it.  Lori needed that one in Labrador this summer, so I picked up the P100.  All three cameras were in the same price range; $400-$500 and I've liked each one more than the last.  Most of the photos on this blog that were taken before July 2010 were taken on the P80.

Nikon Coolpix P100 (L) & P80 (R)
The Coolpix P100 is the biggest digital camera that I've owned and although it looks like a SLR, it doesn't have interchangeable lenses, so its still basically a point-and-shoot.  It has all of the features that I liked about the P80, with 4 new features that I really love: 26x optical zoom, HD video, a movable monitor, and internal USB battery charging.
Caribou Lichen photo from the P100

Snow Bunting - They're too nervous to approach
26x optical zoom:  This was the single most important feature for me.  I knew that I'd be taking a lot of wildlife shots this summer and animals are always smaller in photos than they appear in real life.  The 26x zoom is one of the highest on the market at the moment - by comparison the P80 has an 18x optical zoom, which is still very handy.  Camera makers seem to be getting away from listing the digital zoom, which is a good thing, because its a misleading bit of information.  Digital zoom doesn't give you any increased detail in your photo, it just digitally zooms and crops the middle of your photo.  The only zoom that really makes a difference is the optical.

Polar Bear - I'm too nervous to approach
The P100s 26x zoom is very good and is best appreciated with a tripod and a stationary or slow moving subject.  By the time you zoom in that close on a subject your window on the world is very small, especially if you compound it by using the digital zoom as well.  Its like looking through a pinhole, so the slightest movement will nudge your subject out of the frame and its tough to reacquire your target without zooming out and in again.  The tripod helps a lot with that and using the timer helps get sharper images.  The slight pressure of pushing the shutter button is enough to affect the framing of the shot and cause motion blur at the highest magnification.

Hi Def Video:  This was not an option that I ever intended to use, but it turned out to be one of my favourite features. I especially liked using it to capture wildlife shots at 26x magnification with full digital zoom.  Its the first instance where digital zoom actually seemed to help make a better image.  In a photograph, at the highest magnification the photos would appear soft around the edges due to the digital zoom, but the HD video could record at full digital and optical zoom and the video would seem much sharper by comparison.
Ringed seals on ice.  This image is how the seals appeared at 26x optical zoom.

This is a detail of the seals taken from the image above.  I did this on the computer afterwards, but its basically the same result as using the digital zoom on the camera.  The video below was done using 26x optical zoom and maximum digital zoom. 

Screen capture from HD video
If there is a downside to the video files, its that they would tend to get quite large fairly quickly, but that's really only an issue for moving the files around or uploading them to YouTube.  I used an 8 gig memory card and would download my photos and videos every day and storage was never an issue.  The HD video is sharp enough that I've been able to take screen captures from individual frames that make good low resolution photographs, certainly good enough for online use.

The monitor flips out
Movable Monitor:  I never really understood cameras with a movable monitor before, but I can certainly appreciate them now.  By the end of the summer I was always flipping the monitor out so that it faced up and I would use the camera by looking down at it, just like an old fashioned box camera.  This was especially handy because I used a mini tripod and the camera was often low to the ground.  Rather than lie on my stomach to use it I could just flip the monitor out and see what the camera saw.  It was also nice to not have something in front of my face all the time.  When I was walking or riding in a helicopter I could have the camera on and ready continuously, but it never seemed to be in the way.  I could just glance down to operate it.
The movable monitor makes low angle shots like this photo of beluga bones much easier to compose.

The P100 charges while plugged into a computer
Internal USB Battery Charging:  This is such a good idea.  The camera is the battery charger and as long as its plugged into a computer it is recharging.  It saves having to use a separate battery charger and, more importantly, if you forget to turn the camera off after downloading your pictures you don't come back to a dead camera.  I used to do that all the time with the P80.  With the P100, if you forget to turn the camera off while its attached to the computer you come back to a fully charged battery.  That's such a nice difference.  There's also an AC adapter, so you can plug it in and charge it from a wall outlet, as well.  The P80 and P100 use the same batteries so I still have the external charger from the P80 around to use.  There's no more excuses for having dead camera batteries.

A scenic shot from the P100

This little endblade is 1cm wide at the base
There are many other features on the camera that come in handy in other situations.  Like the P80, it has very good macro capabilities for artifact pictures, panorama assist for landscape shots, and a good sport continuous mode (handy when you are bobbing in a boat trying or trying to take pictures of fast moving animals).  I was perfectly happy with the P80, and the four improvements that I outlined above; the 26x zoom, HD video, movable monitor and internal USB battery charging make the Nikon Coolpix P100 a very enjoyable camera to own and use.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Routines

Iqaluit Airport
I'm home now and taking a little bit of a breather before starting on fall work.  I have a couple little jobs lined up for September, as well as a trip to Alberta.  Tomorrow morning I have a Craft Council executive meeting, so I need to get caught up on all the news there. 

One corner of my messy office
Coming back from the field is a good opportunity to set up new routines.  All the old ruts and routines are forgotten and the days and weeks seem wide open.  I'd like to get back into running and my office could really use a good clean up.  I've put up a picture of the mess as an incentive to clean this place up and post an "After" picture later on.  Its a good time to clean -- I don't feel nearly as attached to all my piles of office debris as I did 6 weeks ago.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Friday, August 20, 2010

Flying South

Peregrine Falcon - A summer resident of Nunavut
Time to head south.  Chances are good that I'll be home in St. John's this evening.  I mean, I have my ticket booked and my name is on the manifest for a flight out of camp at 9:30 am to Iqaluit and then Ottawa and home, but when travelling in the North (and when someone else is paying the ticket) you don't really know when you'll arrive someplace until you get there.  In 2008, Lori and I were on a Calgary-Edmonton-Yellowknife-Rankin Inlet-Iqaluit trip that turned into a three day/two night Calgary-Edmonton-Yellowknife-Rankin Inlet-Yellowknife-Edmonton-Calgary-Ottawa-Iqaluit Trip.

Although, I'm really not complaining - Nunavut is a pretty spectacular place to spend a bit of extra time.

Inukshuk, a marker on the landscape.

The Tundra in bloom

Fuzzy little bird. A young sparrow, I think.

Short growing season, intense colour
Sandhill Cranes.  They squawk every second that they are flying around up here and look like giant rubber chickens when you take their picture.  When they fly south, I wonder if they croak and yelp all the way to the southern U.S.?
Equipment cache at a campsite - the half moon shaped object is a qulliq (oil lamp) that was hand hammered from a 45 gallon drum lid.  I wonder why the people never came back for it?
Inuksuit in a line - do they point home?
Peregrine Falcon.  They hate people.  In a few weeks this bird and her chicks will fly to Brazil for the winter.  Grumpy as she is, I hope she has a good year and we'll see each other again next summer.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Fleur de Lys Scoop in The Rooms

Dorset Palaeoeskimo scoop or ladle, found by Jown Erwin at Fleur de Lys, NL. On display in The Rooms, St.John's.

This artifact was made entirely by hand, using stone tools about 1600 years ago

Look how thin and evenly shaped the walls are!
The scoop was preserved in a waterlogged part of the Fleur de Lys soapstone quarry and it took months of conservation to stabilize the wood so that it could be safely displayed in a dry air environment.  The conservation process was documented by the Canadian Conservation Institute in their Before and After Gallery.  You can read about the Soapstone quarrying process, and how the scoop may have fit into that operation in John Erwin's chapter called Revisiting the Dorset Soapstone Quarry in Fleur De Lys, Newfoundland in Contributions to the Study of the Dorset-Palaeo Eskimos. 

Edit: I'm not sure of the exact dimensions of the scoop - but it would be just about the right size to serve a banana split in.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nanook! Nanook! Polar Bear! Polar Bear!

We had to leave work early on Friday because there was a polar bear in the area.  It was a foggy morning and we were mapping a large stone feature about 3.5 km from camp.  We'd paused for coffee and a few minutes into the break Charles said "Nanook! Nanook! Polar Bear! Polar Bear! There on the ice..." and pointed at the large ice pan floating in front of the site.  Initially, the fog was so thick that it was very difficult to see the bear except when it was moving.

The bear was on ice 400-500 metres away from us, so there was no immediate threat.  We sat and watched it for a while to see if it was going to move towards us or away from us.  We made sure the shotgun was loaded and took out the satellite phone in case we needed to call for help.  The bear didn't seem too curious or hungry and took its time moving around the ice.  A gull was following it, looking for scraps.  I'm not sure if the bear was aware of us until it walked to the far end of the ice and seemed to catch our scent. 

Then it sat down and sniffed the air, looking upwind towards us.  The bear did that for a couple minutes before standing up, taking a deep breath, dropping back down on all fours, running away from us and then jumping into the sea and swimming away.  You could see it turning its head and checking for our scent every few seconds as it swam along.  About 15 minutes had passed from the time we first saw the bear to the time it was paddling away.  As the bear was swimming out of view the fog moved in and we could barely see the waters edge.  It appeared that the bear didn't want anything to do with us, but we were several kilometers from camp and with the poor visibility we decided to call the camp and ask for a boat pick up.  Luckily there were two small boats in the area assisting marine biologists and we were picked up about a within a few minutes of making the phone call.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bearded Seal

Nice Mustache
Bearded seals are a common sight in the water and on the ice this summer.  They are the largest seals in the area and although they tend to be loners, they are a little more gregarious around this area.   They earn their name from their thick brush of whiskers.  Like walrus, they are bottom feeders and they use their mustaches to search out clams, squid and fish.  I've been told that the Bearded seals in this area have nice white whiskers because the bottom sediments here are so clean.

Bearded Seal getting some sun

I Hate Mondays.

Stretch and a snooze
Bearded seals are sometimes called "square flippers" because of their short, wide front flippers.  When you get close enough to them, a lot of the seals here have scars.  Some scars are from fights with each other and many are from close calls with polar bears.  A Conservation Officer from Igloolik explained to me that a bearded seal's first instinct when it is hit by a harpoon or attacked by a bear is to roll.   When they are escaping from bears, this creates a long spiral scar along the back.  Some seals always roll left, some always roll right, and some are ambidextrous.  You can tell which way a particular seal rolls by the direction of the scars.
The black line in the middle of the back is a scar from an escape from a polar bear

This hefty fellow carries his scars on his face and neck.  Or maybe its a she - I can't tell the difference.
The have a bit of a flat head when they are spying on you from the water.

A nice day to catch some rays.

Metal harpoon for large seals, walrus, and beluga
Bearded seal is the only seal that I've genuinely enjoyed the taste.  Cubes of meat, intestine, and fat boiled together tastes like a fish porkchop.  The skin is the best skin for ropes and thongs and makes tough boot soles.  The Igloolik Inuktitut name for bearded seals is ugjuk.  The line on this harpoon is bearded seal, and the dog toggle below would have been on the end of a long bearded seal line and was used to attach a dog to a sled.

A lost antler toggle from a dog team line.
Photo Credits: Tim Rast
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