Understanding the narwhal: Research camp
Last summer, Vancouver-based writer and photographer Isabelle Groc travelled to Baffin Island, Nunavut, to track narwhals. These are one of the most elusive species in the world. She joined a two-week narwhal research expedition, and reports on her Arctic journey and close encounters with the "sea unicorn".
This article is the second in a 10-part series. Read part one here.
It took several Twin Otter flights to disembark the research team and gear at Tremblay Sound, our campsite. There was nothing there but piles of rocks, little vegetation, and the constantly blowing wind.
It was hard to imagine that a day later the site would be working as a fully operational research station with our colourful tents overlooking the sound, a kitchen tent, and a science lab set up in a plywood shack that was first built by the Danish scientists who started narwhal investigations in the 1990s.
I was immediately put to work, helping the team unload the gear from the planes. As I was organizing food shelves in the kitchen tent, I realized how much work it takes to plan a research expedition in a remote Arctic location. Everything had to be brought in: Zodiac boats, propane tanks, nets, enough food to feed 14 people for two weeks, scientific instruments, and even a container with liquid nitrogen for freezing narwhal blubber samples.
We were still working hard at 10 p.m. that first night, but time did not really matter in the constant Arctic daylight. We sat down for our first meal in the kitchen tent, and the food was delicious. It was warm and comfortable, which I did not expect in this desolate site, beaten up by the strong winds and the rain. I was ready for my first night, and pleased to see that my tent was strategically located, being the closest to the kitchen tent. We were not allowed to venture off on our own away from the camp, as there was always the possibility of a close encounter with a polar bear.
The next day, Sandie Black, head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo, established our “shift” schedule. The plan was to have team members rotate on a 24-hour watch to monitor the narwhal nets in the water and keep a lookout for polar bears in the area.
Two team members—one of them with gun experience—would always be on watch for three hours, and I soon learned that my first shift was scheduled for that night from 6 to 9 p.m. Sandie Black, who had joined several of these Arctic research expeditions before, was going to be my shift partner for the duration of the trip.
The next day, it was still pouring rain and the wind was howling. It took many layers of clothing to stay warm, and I almost regretted the desperate move of cutting my hair so short before the trip, knowing that I wouldn't be able to wash my hair for two weeks.
These thoughts quickly vanished as soon as I saw my very first groups of narwhal swimming past our camp. There were hundreds of them travelling fast, and I could see tusk tips occasionally emerging from the water, as well as females with calves. At some point, I noticed a full tusk that stayed out of the water for a few minutes, slowly moving like the mast of a sinking boat.
This extraordinary sight reminded me of the origin of the name narwhal. The old Norse prefix nar means corpse and hvalr means whale. The “corpse whale” refers to how the whitish skin coloration resembles that of a drowned sailor.
I asked Jack Orr why the narwhals come to this area in the summer, and he replied that there are several possible answers. One reason is that the narwhals may be looking for a freshwater environment to stimulate the skin-renewal process known as molting. They may also seek refuge in these small, quiet fjords and inlets to escape killer whale predation.
“You also see them play around, having fun, and enjoying life,” says Orr. I could certainly understand that after spending so much time in the darkness and the ice, narwhals would enjoy hanging out in the summer sun.
That day, we were finally ready to set out the nets in the water to catch narwhal and begin the real research work. The excitement started building up, as we tried on our drysuits and got ready for our first whale capture.