Last summer, Vancouver-based writer and photographer Isabelle Groc travelled to Baffin Island, 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 first in a 10-part series. Read part two here.
As a wildlife photographer, I have documented many of Canada’s species at risk, from delicate butterfly species to massive grizzly bears. But the narwhal is the most intriguing and fascinating species, so when I had the opportunity to join a group of scientists and Inuit hunters on a narwhal research expedition, I did not hesitate. I packed my warmest clothes, acquired a heavy-duty sleeping bag, and I flew to Pond Inlet, a community of 1,500 people in Baffin Island, Nunavut.
There are about 80,000 narwhals worldwide, located in the Canadian high Arctic, west and east Greenland, and as far east as Svalbard, Norway. Several sub-populations of narwhals exist, and one of the largest is the Baffin Bay population.
This was the one Jack Orr, project lead for the Arctic Research Division at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, focused on for this project. His goal was to tag narwhals with satellite transmitters to learn about their movements and diving behaviors.
This was the third and final year of his satellite tagging work on narwhals in this particular location, Tremblay Sound, a fjord off of Eclipse Sound.
Tags mounted on narwhals transmit signals picked up by satellites high above the earth. They provide unique insights on where the narwhals go at times of the year where nobody can see them, and they also reveal how deep the narwhals dive and how long they stay underwater.
The narwhal is one of the deepest-diving whales—up to 1,500 metres. This improves the accuracy of population estimates through aerial surveys, when not all the animals are visible at the surface. Scientists also learn what the narwhals are eating at different depths and times of the year. “That helps when you are looking at commercial fisheries which can affect the availability of food for narwhal,” says Orr.
Every single piece of information contributes to the narwhal puzzle, and because narwhals live in a fast-changing Arctic environment, understanding their population size, migration patterns, behaviours, and interactions with the environment is critical to help conserve a species faced with multiple threats including climate change, hunting, industrial development, overfishing, and increased predation from killer whales.
So there was a lot on the plate of our 14-member narwhal research team, a varied group of scientists, veterinarians, Inuit hunters…. And a dentist from Connecticut, which is hardly surprising after all when one considers the scientific name for narwhal, Monodon monoceros, derived from the Greek “one tooth, one horn,” in reference to the narwhal’s spiraled tusk that can extend two to three metres. Martin Nweeia, a professor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, has dedicated many years studying narwhal tusks, and joined Jack Orr’s expedition to continue his research.
After a first night in Pond Inlet, we learned that the Twin Otter aircraft that would take us on a 30-minute flight from Pond Inlet to our research camp in Tremblay Sound was stuck in Resolute because of bad weather. We spent another night in Pond Inlet, and as an Arctic first-timer, I realized that it was best not to be on a tight schedule in the Arctic. The forces of nature always rule. I didn’t mind, as the extra time gave me a chance to explore the community a little more.
Finally the next afternoon, we left for Tremblay Sound where we were going to establish our research camp for the next two weeks. The adventure was about to begin.