This summer, Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium’s senior vice president and general manager, ventured 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. This is his final blog post in this series on the season’s narwhal research.

As our boat left Tremblay Sound I couldn’t help but feel mixed emotions. After two weeks of tagging narwhals in this remote outpost, I was ready to get back to the Vancouver Aquarium – but it was hard to say goodbye to the four members of our 14 member team who were staying behind. Due to the poor weather, and the space available on the boat, they would stick it out for a while longer as we continued on our way to Pond Inlet and then on to Iqaluit.

Extreme winds and low clouds were to blame for the break up for our team, which had grown incredibly close over the time we spent working together in the water with the narwhals. The initial plan was for us to pack up and head out by plane (the same way we had come in) but the low clouds and bone-chilling rain made it just too dangerous for any pilot to navigate and land.

This iceberg floating by our camp was about 3-4 stories tall.

Over the time I’ve spent in Arctic, I have learned that you can try and prepare as best you can – but the weather will always have the last say. When it became clear that no planes would be coming for us anytime soon, we called the local Hunters and Trappers Organization, which sent out a boat for the three hour trip back to Pond Inlet (half an hour by plane).

Despite the challenges of doing research in the Arctic, we achieved what we set out to do: tagging narwhals with satellite transmitters in order to provide researchers with important data about where they go as the seasons change. On top of this, we were also able to take blood samples, blowhole cultures and measure other health parameters that create a baseline of general narwhal health, which we can continue to monitor against for years to come. The research team consisted of experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, veterinarians, dentists (conducting narwhal tusk research), WWF and hunters from the Mittimatilik Hunters and Trappers Organization – all of whom will be able to share what they have learned with a wider network of people.

This narwhal skull has two tusks, which is quite unique. Most narwhals only have one.

This summer’s record loss of Arctic ice reminds me why this research is as important as ever. As the Arctic continues to warm and conditions change, narwhals will be faced with new obstacles as they try to survive in an already unforgiving environment. Although it’s hard at this point to speculate what the long term impacts of this warming will be – it’s important to continue collecting data so we may at least start to understand what’s going on.

The plan next summer is to continue this narwhal research with the prospect of facing head-on the challenges that will no doubt be waiting for the team there: more ice, more cold and yes, more unpredictable weather.

A Symphony of Narwhal Sounds

These narwhal sounds were captured by a hydrophone (underwater microphone) in Tremblay Sound, Nunavut, where narwhal tagging took place for a period of two weeks in August. Researchers tagged narwhals with satellite transmitters, which will collect valuable data about where these animals travel as the seasons change.

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