This month, Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium’s senior vice president and general manager, is venturing into Canada’s Arctic to conduct research on narwhals, which make up a vital part of the Arctic ecosystem. Keeping track of their population size and understanding migration patterns are important in making sure their populations stay healthy. He will be providing regular updates on his research, starting with this first blog post.
The trip up here had a bit of a slow start due to the weather, but I’ve learned that’s the reality of travelling in the Arctic. First, the float plane that we were waiting for in Pond Inlet got stuck in Resolute en route to us, and then once the plane did get to Pond Inlet to pick us up, the bad weather delayed our departure by a few days. However, after the 30-minute flight from Pond Inlet, we finally made it to Tremblay Sound on Baffin Island.
Once in Tremblay Sound, we disembarked and set up camp where we will conduct narwhal research for the next week. And by “camp” I mean a plywood research shack, a food tent and personal tents overlooking the sound. I’m here with 13 other people, including scientists and local Inuit.
This is my third year being involved with this research project, which essentially requires us to tag narwhals with satellite transmitters so that we can track their movements. Over time, we can find out where they go as the seasons change. When the transmitter is attached, a small piece of skin and blubber is collected at the same time. This tissue provides information about what the narwhal was eating and its gender. While all this is going on, we also take body measurements and do a visual check to assess the narwhal’s overall health. We’re also taking blood and blowhole samples before releasing them. It all may seem very basic, but we need to start at the beginning in order to learn more about these Arctic animals.
I’m helping researchers collect this information because of the many years I have spent at the Vancouver Aquarium working alongside marine mammals such as beluga whales. Although the species may be different, the animal husbandry techniques used at the Aquarium can be applied to other situations.
We didn’t have to wait long before the first narwhal was caught in the nets we had set up. We went out into the water in zodiacs and pulled the whale closer to shore. The feisty female was 13 feet long and in great shape. We were still able to tag and release her within 25 minutes.
When we’re not in the water tagging narwhals, the plan is to take turns on a 24-hour watch. At all times, two people will be responsible for checking the nets for narwhals and for keeping a look out for polar bears ‒ we definitely don’t want them wandering into our camp.
The weather has been quite bad ‒ the wind is howling and it’s pouring with rain ‒ so I hope we get a bit of a reprieve as we continue on with our research tomorrow.