By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
A strong and gusting onshore breeze has been blowing from the north for the last few days and very few narwhals have been passing by — of those spotted only a handful were swimming by on our side of the Sound. The weather has been mostly clear, sunny, and warm when out of the wind and the whales could easily be seen in the spotting scope. They were massing and cavorting at the surface in the shelter of mountains to the north, close but completely out of range of our camp. When they did come through they were on long, slow and deep swims and were only fleetingly seen at the surface silently swimming.
Today was our last full day in camp and the southerly wind finally came back and with it a change in narwhal behaviour. A spectacular golden sunrise backlit the exhales of hundreds of narwhals on the horizon and within a couple of hours a stampede of sorts began. Narwhals in small groups sometimes ten abreast ploughed in from the north raising white water and spray before them. They were upon us much faster than we expected, everyone was roused and expectations were high. They were on our side of the Sound, close to shore appearing to abandon all caution they had shown in previous days.
Wave after wave raced toward our fixed net but time and again they dove and easily cleared this minor obstacle. Several hundred of them must have passed, a spectacular sight and sound, but unfortunately did not add to our tally of tagged narwhals.
Our net watch was on alert all day and saw the main wave of animals pass through as well as small groups moving back and forth in front of us. In the afternoon, on five or six occasions narwhals came impossibly close to the net but managed to avoid making contact with it at the last minute. They would be right upon it and all of sudden put on the breaks, swerving and diving in a fluid display of cetacean gymnastics.
We had been packing and sorting gear all day into large lightweight plastic boxes we call action-packers. The last of the Inuks who were part of our crew dismantled their tents and left in the early evening in their aluminum boat to return home to Pond Inlet — leaving a crew of nine in camp. Our tents remained up but in essence we were ready to be airlifted tomorrow morning, a process likely to take three or four short flights back and forth from camp to Pond Inlet, weather willing. It has been a fruitful journey and I’m glad to be of assistance to Fisheries and Oceans Canada on this annual research project as there is still much to learn about these majestic whales.
Given how close we had been to being getting another whale in order to fit it with a satellite tag during the day, the decision was made to leave the net in overnight as whales were still passing through. It’s nearly 9 p.m. as I write this and tomorrow I will be up at 3 a.m. for my last watch of the field season. Although now tired I would gladly give up some sleep to get one more chance to hear “whale in the net!”
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.