People of a Feather: Mapping a Remote Community to Help Save the Arctic Eider

The Arctic Eider isn’t just any duck. The feather of this sea-ice dweller is the warmest in the world—a marvel of nature that allows the Eider duck to spend its winters in one of the most remote and frozen habitats on the planet. And now—thanks to Google Maps, the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq and our small environmental charity the Arctic Eider Society—people from around the world can explore this extraordinary and fragile part of Canadian geography that the Arctic Eider calls home.


View from the bottom of a polynya, an ‘oasis’ of open water in the sea ice maintained by strong currents. An eider duck is feeding on mussels and sea urchins while others dive from the surface above. Joel Heath photo.

by Joel Heath, Executive Director of the Arctic Eider Society

Last winter, in -50 degree celsius winds, the Google Maps team traveled to the Belcher Islands in Hudson’s Bay and helped the Arctic Eider Society mount the Trekker on a snowmobile to collect stunning street view imagery from nearby “polynyas”—bodies of open water that form in the sea ice. The polynyas act as an oasis of sorts, providing a habitat for wildlife like eiders who dive under the ice to feed on shellfish and sea urchins.

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Traditional igloo life on the Belcher Islands, where eider duck clothing was they key to keeping warm. For the first time in many years, three generations are wearing traditional clothing, created for People of a Feather. Joel Heath photo.


You’ll see from the images that it’s not just ducks up here in the cold. The Inuit of the Belcher Islands have also lived here for centuries. This community, a hamlet of just 850 people, has an important relationship with the eider duck—aside from providing them a traditional source of warmth and food, the bird’s feathers are ingrained in their history, used to create traditional parkas unique to the Inuit of this region.


Sim Kavik and Joel Heath observe eider ducks from inside a plywood blind at the edge of the sea ice, housing underwater camera equipment. Heath first arrived in Sanikiluaq in 2002 after Inuit alerted the Canadian Wildlife Service to massive die-offs of eider ducks.


But this is an ecosystem under threat.  The region has suffered from a lack of environmental stewardship, and the sensitive sea-ice—critical to the Eiders and Inuit– is suffering as a result of hydroelectric development around Hudson Bay. Large die-off events of eiders and beluga whales have been occurring as changing ice conditions trap the animals until they starve or run out of air.


Left: With no caribou on their islands, Inuit on the Belcher Islands have relied on eider ducks for food and clothing for generations. Here, an Inuit woman wearing a traditional eider skin parka collects duck eggs. Right: Sanikiluaq residents Dora and Rebecca Kavik find an eider nest. They’re collecting eider down that will be used to fill warm winter parkas. Joel Heath photos.


Left: Nanualuk of the North – Simeonie Kavik, lead character of People of a Feather. A polynya is visible in the background. Right: Maria Kudluarok wears a traditional eider skin parka (Amautik) created for People of a Feather. Joel Heath photos.


Our partnership with Google Maps is helping to support research programs designed to preserve these winter sea ice habitats. We’re combining imagery captured by the Trekker with data and knowledge from the local Inuit and Cree communities and mapping by the Arctic Eider Society to create a platform where we can all track and report on the local wildlife, together. This mix of new and old, combining indigenous knowledge with Google Street View and the Arctic Eider Society’s mapping, may be just what’s needed to address the impacts hydroelectricity heating is having on the bird that produces winter’s warmest feather.


To learn more about the unique relationship between the community of Sanikiluaq and the Arctic Eider, be sure to watch the critically acclaimed award winning film People of a Feather that started it all.


Johnassie Ippak (left) and Maria Kudluarok (right) pose with director Joel Heath (centre) wearing traditional eider skin clothing created for recreation scenes from People of a Feather. Johnny Kudluarok photo.


Take a moment to visit Google Maps to better understand this amazing bird and the community who relies on it. Take an icy walk down the streets of Sanikiluaq, climb onto a snowmobile and explore the amazing sea-ice the Arctic Eider calls home. Eider down parka not required.


A newly-hatched eider duckling on the Belcher Islands. Joel Heath photo.


A male and female eider take flight. Instead of migrating south, Hudson Bay eiders spend winter in the sea ice, providing a source of food and clothing for local Inuit throughout the year. Joel Heath photo.


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