Understanding the narwhal: Whale in the net

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      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 fourth in a 10-part series. Read part three here.

      After a couple days spent setting up the research camp, we were finally ready to set the nets in the water to capture narwhals. To do so, the team used a large net anchored to shore on one end and attached to a large bag of rocks at the offshore end. The net was kept afloat by six white buoys and monitored 24 hours a day. Once the net was in the water, all we had to do was to watch and wait.

      We didn’t have to wait too long, and the camp’s quiet atmosphere changed at the signal of somebody blowing a horn and loudly yelling “whale in the net!”  The buoys had been pulled down, and everybody knew what that meant: a narwhal had hit the net and became entangled.

      All of a sudden, it felt like we were on a fire drill in the middle of nowhere, as we all frantically ran and put our dry suits on.  When a whale is in the net, time is of the essence.

      Three or four team members immediately hopped into one zodiac and raced to the end of the net to cut the anchor rope, while the other zodiac crew pulled the net up and brought the whale to the surface so it could breathe. A shore crew then pulled the whale into shallow water where the science work could begin.

      Sandie Black, the head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo, would almost stop breathing herself until she got the narwhal up for that first breath. She compared the animal’s struggle in the net to wrestling. “It is like weight-lifting: using the muscles against a static force,” she says. “The narwhals are using every muscle from their body to fight the net, and they don’t even know what it is.”

      The first narwhal we caught was a 13-foot-long female. She was rather feisty and anxious to be reunited with the calf that had been left behind. It took a real team effort to control the whale in a manner that was safe both to the animal and the people involved.

      Being so close to the whale and the action, I realized that it took a lot of experience, communication, focus, and skill to tag a narwhal.

      “They are big animals, and they have the capability to throw people around,” says Clint Wright, who gained experience with animal handling through his work at the Vancouver Aquarium. I watched Wright use all his force to hold the narwhal’s powerful tail while other team members conducted the scientific procedure as quickly as possible. “Being able to carefully control the animal is very important,” Wright says.

      The pace was fast and furious, but in the middle of the action, I still remembered what an amazing privilege it was for me to be so close to this animal that had captivated my imagination for so long. For a short moment I put my bare hand on the back of the narwhal. It felt cold, rubbery, and surreal.

      There was no time to reflect further. While the satellite transmitter tag was attached using two nylon pins through the dorsal ridge of the narwhal, a small piece of skin and blubber was also collected. The researchers monitored the heart rate, took blood and blowhole samples, recorded body measurements, and assessed the narwhal’s overall  health, making notes of scars and molting. Everyone worked intensely to make this process as quick as possible.

      While this was happening, it was clear that the narwhal was keeping in communication with the calf that was waiting for her mother nearby. When it was finally time to release the animal, the team needed to be in control more than ever. In an effort to get away, narwhals sometimes attempt to roll and swim away upside down, which can damage the tag in the shallow water.

      As the female was finally released, the tension subsided. It was over, and the team came to shore, exchanging smiles and handshakes. I could sense everybody’s relief. Our only mild disappointment was to discover that the chocolate cookies somebody had decided to bake before the whale capture were now hopelessly burned.

      Jack Orr conducted a debriefing and congratulated the team on a job well done, going over the improvements that could be made for the next capture. He stressed the importance of recording when the whale was caught, how long it took to get it to shore, and when the narwhal was released.

      “We go as fast as we can and we put a lot of effort into ensuring that there is as little stress to the animals as possible,” Orr says. For this first whale, the process was completed in less than 30 minutes. 

      Orr, who has caught 300 whales—mostly belugas and narwhals— in his 30-year career, always thinks about how to do the job better. The man obviously loves the thrill and the challenge of catching whales. He also cares deeply about them.

      This was only the beginning, and Orr’s goal was to tag another eight narwhals during the expedition. We were back on watch.