By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
We aren’t the only ones watching out for narwhals here in Tremblay Sound. Narwhal form an important part of the local diet and every year a quota is set for how many of them the community can take. The summer months are an important time for the hunters and a few had set up camp a mile or so from us. In the early evening we heard shots and over the radio heard that they had successfully taken an animal.
Just before midnight last Friday, I was roused from sleep and alerted to news that narwhal would soon be coming past our nets. Stationary nets strung from shore allow us to temporarily restrain narwhal in order to attach the satellite transmitters as well as take blood samples and body measurements to assess their overall health. In a well-practiced drill, I slipped into my dry suit whilst jogging to the muster point at the communal tent. Several members of the team were already there sitting at the ready with their suits half donned. The first of the whales had already crashed through, hitting the rope that tied the net to the anchor point on shore.
The main herd started arriving, and they were in a hurry — moving rapidly at the surface, breathing hard, and bunched in tight groups. For a brief instant it looked as if we would have multiple animals colliding with the net. As it was, the animals dove just before the net and then re-appeared several metres past it and carried on their surface swim barely skipping a beat. This continued on for about ten minutes; by which time all the animals had passed through and were safely well beyond the hunter’s camp.
I returned to the warmth of my sleeping bag for a quick two hour nap before waking for my shift. The day started well – very cold but with blue skies, the promise of a sunny day. By 9:30 a.m. the sun was well up and it was warm when you were out of the breeze. The narwhals started re-appearing close to our camp but out of camera range as they were mostly on the opposite side of the Sound.
They were trundling slowly back and forth in ever increasing numbers. Curious as to the reason why this was happening, a small drone was sent out high above to have a look. What the drone captured was amazing. In the crystal clear Arctic water you could see the animals interacting. Long tusked males scanned their head back and forth, up and down, continually swimming in all directions whilst females with very young calves tucked close to their bodies swam in and out. This milling behaviour continued for an hour or so until they moved off to the North once again.
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.