With only a short window of time to gather data, multiple teams from Ocean Wise spent their summer in the Arctic for ongoing research. Studies included the distribution of microplastics in Arctic waters; tagging and tracking narwhals, Greenland sharks and other Arctic species; physical oceanography; research to monitor communication between mother beluga whales and their calves; and an underwater survey of Arctic marine species. Read on to find out more.
Blog post by Clint Wright, Ocean Wise Executive Vice President & COO
This was my 11th season working in the Arctic and my eighth participating on an in-depth study on the behaviour, health and movements of narwhals in Canadian waters. Last year was particularly exciting as we managed to verify for the first time, via drone video footage, that male narwhals do indeed use their tusk as a tool to stun small prey fish. Although it was previously thought of as an unlikely use of the tusk, and on its own this discovery is not enough to determine if the technique is used regularly; the fact that several males were clearly seen targeting and dispatching Arctic cod with a swift tap of the tusk demonstrates that they do use it for that purpose, at least on occasion. We have not completely solved the mystery of the tusk yet, but each year more pieces fall into place.
Typically the field season involves a summer expedition north to spend three weeks in a research field camp. This year a much more ambitious operation was planned, spanning nine weeks from the departure of ice in July, through the short summer of 24-hour daylight to the middle of September hopefully finishing up before the rapid slide into the long Arctic winter. The plan was to get a much bigger picture of the aquatic ecosystem of Tremblay Sound — beyond the important tracking of narwhals, to include tagging of fishes like Arctic char, Greenland shark, and sculpins; plankton sampling; fish sampling, bio-monitoring; acoustic recording; veterinary health evaluations; remote underwater video footage of sharks feeding. All told, more than 40 scientists, field technicians, veterinarians, boat and animal experts, Inuit and students would be spelled into camp on three-week legs.
It was a three-day trek to get to camp in Tremblay Sound, just west of Pond Inlet, followed by some time to settle in as it was somewhat slow in terms of narwhal. This wasn’t indicative of the pace around camp though. Boats buzzed to and fro all day long, taking equipment out to monitoring sites and returning with samples and data. For example, after every low tide biologists identified, counted and catalogued aquatic specimens that had been captured in a funnel-like net set permanently a 10-minute walk away from camp. Everything from the tiniest krill and jellies to fish were accounted for. The bigger specimens of fish like char and large sculpins were outfitted with electronic chips for long term monitoring and then released. A massive database is being compiled of what species are around when, how big, how many, and who eats who.
With so many projects underway, we once had 21 people in camp — it was becoming a small village. Soon after my arrival two researchers left, followed by a five-person team off to do seal studies further down the Sound. They planned to catch seals in nets and were concerned about disrupting the narwhal research.
In addition to the research activities there were the usual round-the-clock camp tasks: cooking, cleaning, net tending, general repairs, fuelling generators, digging holes, collecting fresh water, tent organization, polar bear watches, whale spotting duties and more, such that the days fly by and tend to merge together.
It was generally cold and wet, each day relatively calm, with the water sometimes glassy, interspersed with long bouts of heavy cold rain. Visibility on narwhal watches was a challenge — at times we could hear hundreds of passing narwhals with only some just barely visible as dark shadows in the mist.
At last, we had our first real close encounter with narwhals on my leg. Early in the morning, a few whales started to appear, heading south. They stayed on the near shore and a group of about 20 heading right for the net prompted the spotter to skip enthusiastically along the tent line giving the preparatory “whales nearby” call out. Sleepy bodies rolled out of their tents one by one to verify the call then most returned to their warm sleeping bags as the whales casually dove under the net and continued on their way.
Ocean Wise is a global ocean conservation organization focused on protecting and restoring our world’s oceans. Building on the roots of the Vancouver Aquarium, which started as a community-based not-for-profit organization, Ocean Wise aims to inspire people in every corner of the planet to participate in creating healthy oceans. The transformation is a natural evolution of Vancouver Aquarium’s 61 years of conservation research, education and engagement, extending its world-renowned leadership to Ocean Wise, and committing its positive impact to other parts of the world.