By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
It’s Wednesday here in camp at about 10:30 a.m. and I am sitting in the communal cooking tent catching up on downloading pictures and making some notes. We’ve had beautiful warm sunny weather for the last three days but last night the rain started and ten minutes before my 3 a.m. shift it got really heavy. Fortunately early this morning the pattern consisted of passing squalls that came in regular fronts down the Sound but then left almost as quickly. The squalls eased by 7 a.m. and we now have lighter winds and a misty drizzle.
Narwhals are here in abundance this year, with what seems like several hundred moving up and down Tremblay Sound at least twice a day. Every morning so far I can almost set my watch to the 2:30 a.m. arrival of the first wave of animals. Hugging the western shoreline they are within 100 metres of our tents and their forced exhales can be heard heralding their arrival. Light at that time of the day is starting to diminish daily despite still being 24-hour daylight.
The males are first to arrive purposefully heading the herd. Details are hard to see but their silhouetted bodies regularly burst forth from the water forcefully clearing their blowhole in an explosive spray before inhaling deeply and disappearing beneath the water. They are like robust belugas in build with no dorsal fin, a grey/black and white mottled skin and long tusks that rarely break the surface when traveling. The females, calves, and juveniles travel in tight pods of three to ten animals and continue on in an almost endless line, following some invisible underwater highway for at least 10 to 15 minutes. They are heading to the far end of the Sound.
Nets are out in the hopes of tagging our first narwhal of the season. With a 16 person team of scientists and support personnel as well as the latest in equipment including hydrophones and satellite tagging technology waiting to be deployed, the goal is to get this year’s investigations underway soon.
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.