It has been another year without narwhals. Despite occasional sightings, we did not catch and tag any. Perhaps there are enough for the locals to hunt but not enough to predictably track and study, although in our three years here, the local hunters have also taken very few animals.
The ice was a major challenge this year, moving back and forth on the tides and continuing to seep into the fiord from open waters. Every morning we awoke with new hope of observing narwhals, only to see another continuous crust of ice on the horizon. Offshore winds helped briefly by pushing ice away and creating open water, only for the water to be refilled again just an hour or two later. We attempted several times to reposition our anchor line in front of the camp but it kept getting dragged off down the fiord with monotonous regularity by giant slabs of ice.
The ice movements were again unusual this year — some areas were ice-free early while others remained ice-bound for the first time in living memory, significantly impacting communities that rely on clear water for hunting and supply drop-off from the large ships or sea lifts.
Ice movements impact the animals too. Concerns are being raised that as the ice recedes, seals, a known prey item of sharks, might be more heavily predated upon. On top of that, the increasing presence of killer whales in now ice-free waters is having an impact on their prey — narwhals and belugas.
Despite not being able to tag any narwhals, we continued to catch and release Greenland sharks every day and ended up tagging 10 of them. The first of the tags are already showing the sharks have left the fiord, perhaps on their way to Greenland.
As the end of our trip drew nearer, the days became noticeably shorter. We no longer enjoyed 24 hours of sunshine as when we first arrived. We also encountered our first snowfall, and the temperature started dropping below zero. Our tents and sleeping bags became very damp with overnight fog rolling in off the water, and layering was essential to keep the chills away during the early morning polar bear watches.
Our last day was a busy one, carefully packing and stowing all of our gear into totes, and noting required repairs and shortages. All day long, the seals continued to ply the waters in front of the camp, pushing forth small schools of Arctic cod that the seabirds noisily congregated above and plunged into the icy waters to grab. At high tide, a number of small aluminum boats came out from Grise Fiord to pick up the gear and ferry us back.
The research expedition was over for 2015, but as we picked our way through the ice, plans were already being discussed as to next year’s field location.
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. This is his eighth and final blog post of this series.