By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
For the seventh year in a row, I’m spending part of the summer in the Arctic, assisting with Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Eclipse Sound Narwhal Study. Researchers are working to learn about the seasonal distribution and diving behaviour of the animals in relation to issues like increased ship traffic, industrial development, stock identity, climate change, autumn ice entrapments, and their wintering area.
I’m helping 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. This project requires us to tag narwhals with satellite transmitters so that we can track their movements. Over time, we’re finding 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 may sound simple, but these are big animals and we try to work as a fast and efficient team.
This year, we’re back in Tremblay Sound on Baffin Island, and for the first time in several years of this project, the weather was perfect upon our arrival and we headed straight out to the research camp in Tremblay Sound without stopping in Pond Inlet, Nunavut this time around.
Since we arrived, we have been on a 24-hour narwhal watch, even though the nets used to catch and tag them aren’t set up yet. There are hundreds of narwhals here moving up and down the fjord on a regular basis — we’ve observed males, females and calves. They were spending time leisurely swimming along and engaging in lots of play behaviours.
We’re also keeping an eye out for other wildlife: a couple of days ago a polar bear and her cub skirted our tent camp with no incident, but you never know. And we baited lines for Greenland shark last night in the hopes of being able to attach satellite tags from this location.
Despite it being such a remote location, our camp is a busy place. It is 24-hour daylight here still and between that, the noisy buzz of drones overhead as the scientists practice transect runs, and the camp dog occasionally barking to alert his owner of the narwhal — I did not get a lot of sleep.
Clint Wright, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s executive vice president & COO, has ventured into Canada’s Arctic for the seventh year in a row, lending his marine mammal expertise to a multi-year project with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The field work primarily focuses on tagging narwhals, which is part of a long-term strategy to understand this unique species. The tags allow scientists to follow the movements of the narwhals during their annual feeding and reproductive routines.