By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
As the wind increased, I returned to my tent to secure all my belongings. The frame and lines were being buffeted in a non-stop barrage and the fabric was being whipped back and forth mercilessly. The sound was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else, let alone the approaching footsteps. I was catching up on notes when one of the researchers poked their head in to let me know that whales were fast approaching and following right behind them was a cruise ship.
This was a first — we had never seen a cruise ship here in Tremblay Sound before. As I came out of the tent I was shocked to see a massive four-storey ship bearing down on us, its railings lined with throngs of tourists snapping photos. It was tough to keep looking into the wind as my eyes were stinging and watering but I could make out narwhals crashing through the white caps heading in our direction and away from the ship. I knew I had to get to the roster point quickly. Almost immediately there was a whale in our net. I shoved my feet into black garbage bags then slipped effortlessly into the neoprene legs of my dry suit which was still wet from the earlier incident.
The narwhal in our net was a bigger animal, a female, and she was lined up nearshore in shallow water in order for us to conduct the standard procedures of attaching a satellite tag, carefully taking samples of blubber and blood, as well as body measurements before releasing the whale. As usual, no one stood near her head as to not obstruct her sound window which allows her to listen to and communicate with other narwhal. Unfortunately, the cruise ship stopped, positioning itself mid-channel just out from our camp so that passengers on deck could get a good look at the work we were doing.
Increasing boat traffic in the Arctic is a growing concern particularly with climate change and increased access to more remote locations. Part of our research here with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Tremblay Sound is geared towards determining seasonal distribution and diving behaviours of these animals in relation to issues like increased ship traffic and industrial development. Although there can be important economic benefits, the long term impacts of vessel noise on wild animal populations is yet to be determined. This event was a dramatic demonstration of the ever increasing access to remote Arctic areas these vessels are now exploring.
The team worked on the animal as quickly as possible and she was back swimming in the Sound in no time — another satellite tag deployed. The turnaround time was impressive, less than 20 minutes from net to release.
We reset the net but the savage northerly wind caused us to pull it out again to ensure the safety of the crew and animals. The wind is still howling as I write this from my tent, but I will be able to sleep well knowing that we now have three narwhals being tracked and I will not have to be up again until it’s my turn for to watch for polar bears.
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.