It has been another near-perfect morning here with light winds, blue skies and temperatures hovering around zero. It is now 6 a.m. and I have just finished my regular three-hour polar bear watch. When the weather is good, this is my favourite time. There are just two of us up, and with the whole fiord is asleep, it is almost silent except for the light hum of the generator that provides us with our only supply of electricity. As the sun slowly rises from behind the mountain, the whole fiord is lit with an amazing golden glow, and today, the waters were almost glass-flat. Gradually, some of the fiord’s inhabitants start to stir; seals grunt back and forth and seabirds start wheeling and kiting across the water.
It was a surprisingly quiet night, overall, given yesterday’s excitement. No sign of narwhals had been seen since early the very first morning, but just after lunch, five narwhals suddenly emerged in a disturbance right in front of camp. The animals had somehow evaded the watch of at least five people and stealthily made their way along the shoreline. This sudden appearance set the camp into action with everyone racing to don their dry suits while trying to maintain a focus on the net and the location of the whales. The animals continued on their way, staying close to shore, but were soon far from the net.
When we first arrived at the field camp, the net was set just beyond the shore by members of the research team in a zodiac. As soon as a narwhal swims into it, the net is pulled in from the beach, and the researchers get to work. The whole process of tagging the whale with a satellite transmitter, taking samples (blood, blubber, skin and blowhole) and measuring takes less than 25 minutes. The animal husbandry and veterinary experts on the research team ensure that stress on the animal is minimal.
We were all abuzz, and for a few on the research team this was their first experience of seeing the animals so close. We saw two or three more animals later on, but again they swam past our net. That was the last we saw of any of them, but we now know that we are in a good location frequented by whales. With a little under two weeks left of our research trip, we are feeling optimistic about our chances of finally handling one or two, thereby learning more about these elusive and most northerly narwhals.
Clint Wright, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s senior vice president and general manager, has ventured into Canada’s Arctic for the sixth year in a row 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. Clint joins a team of experts led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. He will be providing regular updates on his research. This is his fourth blog post of this series.