By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
The weekend weather was picture perfect, with each spectacular morning sunrise heralding very warm temperatures throughout the day and glass like conditions on the water. It was perfect for spotting narwhals even way off in the distance. Unfortunately this was a reciprocal opportunity for the narwhals who could make out our net quite easily and, for the most part, remained well clear of it. Calm conditions make for great camping weather but provide extremely slow days in terms of achieving our scientific goal: to temporarily capture narwhals in order to fit them with satellite tags.
Hunters remained active further up Tremblay Sound and this undoubtedly impacted the travels of the narwhals, although the whales continued to pass by our camp every so often. Generally they were spotted close to the opposite shoreline. You could hear every breath the animals were taking at the surface, and at times we could have sworn they were within a stone’s throw away on our side. On Sunday afternoon we had the opportunity to see a large group of narwhal circling and thrashing at the surface. Looking as if they were feeding, we sent a drone overhead and could see many narwhal – males, females, and calves all mixed together and likely hunting small cod.
The whales were still moving back and forth in large numbers this morning and, although it was still sunny, a light northerly breeze began to ripple along the surface. At about 10 a.m., a large herd began to form and started to move en masse from the north toward our camp. There was plenty of white water and the narwhals were swimming at a good pace, their heads lifting with their tusks breaking the surface. Wave after wave of animals went by, just skirting the anchor buoy.
As the last few groups passed it seemed we had missed another opportunity, until we noticed the farthest float had disappeared. Within five minutes we had a short-tusked narwhal on the shoreline and a satellite tag being fitted. This was only the second animal we were able to tag in a little over a week and an important success. It only took about 30 minutes from the time the float disappeared to the release. Application of the transmitter is done as quickly and quietly as possible and efforts are made to ensure the whale is as comfortable as possible during the process.
When in the field, our own comfort relies largely on staying warm and, if possible, dry. One of the hazards of jumping into the cold water to tend to the narwhals is the occasional leak in your dry suit. On this occasion, in our haste to get going, my suit had not been completely zipped up and so, while sitting beside the whale during the procedure, I could feel the cold water creep in. I have now turned my dry suit inside out and hopefully it will dry along with my thermal gear before we see another whale. The sun is still warm and the wind is getting quite strong so it shouldn’t take too long.
It’s mid-afternoon now and the northerly wind is getting very strong. The Sound is covered in white caps; these are much better conditions for our work. It’s getting colder but the sun is still out, for how much longer I am not sure.
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.