By Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium executive vice president & chief operating officer
I have found that being unwillingly woken from a deep sleep is rarely a pleasant experience and last night was a jolt — air horn blasts, urgent shouting and a hard smack on the tent got my heart racing and the adrenaline coursing amazingly quickly. As I tried to wriggle myself from the snugness of my cocoon-like sleeping bag everything seemed to be out of place. It was dark and I struggled to both find my boots and clear my head. “Whale in the net! Whale in the net!” The calls rang out from the watch as I burst from the tent into the cold night air, immediately breaking into a sprint along the shoreline.
This was the last planned night at camp in Tremblay Sound, 16 days and nights had already passed on the remote north of Baffin Island, Canada. So far we had safely caught and released four narwhals and fitted three with satellite tracking devices. We’ve had a full week of mostly frustrating weather conditions since we released the last animal. Now, in the middle of our last night with the sun now well below the horizon we had what seemed like the almost unbelievable chance of getting at least one more.
The Zodiacs raced off into the darkness to secure the whale. I was one of four left on shore, now fully zipped into our dry suits, awaiting the call to heave on the line and haul whale, net, and two Zodiacs with five team members to shore. The net was cut from its far anchor and immediately the weight of the task became apparent as we were jerked back toward the water with two or three hard kicks. The haul to shore was hard, leaning at an acute angle into the rope and straining step over step up the steep shingle beach. The restrictive neoprene suit soon caused the muscles in my legs to mount a burning complaint. In reality the pull to shore took only minutes before we raced into the water to deal with the last few metres of net and realizing why the task had been harder than before. Coming up for strong deep breaths were two robust, fully grown and magnificently tusked male narwhals.
The males were floated side by side with their heads facing away from shore and one by one blood was drawn from the tails and satellite tags fitted to their backs. All the work was done in almost complete darkness, the team silhouetted against the low glow of a disappearing Arctic summer. A few headlamps were used to locally illuminate some of the more intricate hands-on work.
Despite the size of the animals, the reduced crew size, and poor visibility the team worked steadily and efficiently passing tools, collecting samples, recording data, and caring for the animals. This was not by chance but largely due to the talents of Jack Orr of Fisheries and Oceans Canada — a veteran with decades of field work involving marine mammals in the Arctic. Over my last 26 years at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre I have had the wonderful opportunity to develop a great friendship with Jack and have joined him on some of the projects he has led right across the Canadian Arctic. His attention to detail, knowledge of whales, and understanding of local communities as well as his technical know-how and leadership have earned him instant respect. His expansive knowledge of this type of work has contributed to safe and successful field research – critical in this sometimes unforgiving environment.
One final piece of data remained to be collected from the whales as we laid the tape along each animal. The first measured 4.5 metres from tail to the tip of the head and sported a tusk of 1.7 metres, the biggest so far. The second was a little shorter at 4.4 metres but spectacularly had an even longer tusk at 1.9 metres — there would be another 30 centimetres or so embedded in his upper jaw which means this tusk would have totaled well over two metres long.
All tasks complete, the whales almost immediately disappeared as they slid effortlessly away from our hands back under the blackness of the Sound. Two huge narwhals added to the project, a ridiculously improbable ending to the field season resulting in huge celebratory smiles and hugs all around.
It is highly unlikely that any of us on the team will ever see these animals again, living as they do in remote inaccessible parts of the Arctic. This was a highlight, a fleeting and privileged opportunity to encounter these unique animals up close and learn more about them. In addition, the really exciting prospect is that although physically separated we will still be connected, tracking their individual migrations as they ply the icy waters of the Arctic.
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.