Understanding the narwhal: On the ground
Last summer, Vancouver-based writer and photographer Isabelle Groc travelled to Baffin Island in Nunavut, to track narwhals, 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 eighth in a 10-part series. Read part seven here.
Before I joined the expedition, Jack Orr warned me that I might get bored at camp. After all, we were stationed in a remote location where we spent most of our time waiting for a narwhal to hit the net.
We caught five whales in total during the trip, and while each capture was extremely intense for all of us, we otherwise settled into a routine of quiet observation and expectation.
We were not allowed to explore and venture off on our own away from the camp, as there was always the possibility of a close encounter with a polar bear. Daily excitement came from watching Arctic foxes engage in endless play near the camp, or from an Inuit team member catching an Arctic char for our dinner.
For me, this meditative quiet time provided the opportunity to become more familiar with the Arctic environment and the tundra vegetation. I spent countless hours photographing rock patterns, observing unlikely species such as butterflies, and developing a temporary art display of animal bones outside my tent. Big or small, the discoveries always sparked my curiosity.
One of my guides in this exploration was Peter Ewins, Arctic species conservation specialist at World Wildlife Fund Canada. Obviously there were no trees on the site, but because of a stream nearby, there was a good variety of plants to look for, and Peter showed me 20 to 30 different flowering plants, grasses, shrubs, and various lichens in the tundra “garden” near camp.
Among them was the Arctic willow, a tiny creeping willow that has adapted to survive in the harsh Arctic environment. As there had been a significant amount of rain this year, Peter was able to identify many more flowering species than he had seen on previous trips, such as the yellow saxifrage.
Most people think of the Arctic as a colourless place—white in the winter; brown and green in the summer—so I was surprised to discover that the Arctic was full of colour.
I asked Peter about the bright orange lichen growing on rocks everywhere. He told me the generic name for it was xanthoria, a lichen species that thrives on high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations created by birds or other animals sitting or resting in the same spot.
“The intense concentration of those nutrients creates the conditions around a rock where these orange lichens thrive and can out-compete anything else there,” Peter said. The lichen is actually used as a tool by biologists who are able to confirm the presence of seabirds or other animals by searching for swatches of bright orange.
I even less expected to see a butterfly in the Arctic. And yet one day, as I was looking at a rock, a butterfly crossed my path and stood still for a few seconds, just enough time for me to take a picture and have it identified. I learned that this Arctic species was either a Labrador Sulphur or a Booth’s Sulphur.
Towards the end of the trip and after catching our last whale, we finally got a chance to do a hike and investigate what was beyond our research camp. We saw the bone remains of a bowhead whale, which, according to Sandie Black, were at least 700 to 1,000 years old.
As the head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo, Sandie was the perfect source when it came to identify the different animal bones we found on the beach. I was like an excited child, bringing my new discovery of the day to Sandie for her to guess what animal the bone belonged to and what function it served. Ringed seal pelvis, caribou skull, caribou jaw, back of a skull narwhal, caribou antler—there were many items to learn about, and Sandie rarely failed to recognize what it was.
One of most intriguing pieces I found was a seal humerus, a bone that I found out is used by the Inuit to play a game and ask questions. Every day I got a new anatomy lesson. But to me, these bones not only gave me insights on the animals but were also pieces of artwork that contributed to form the unique Arctic landscape.