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 last in a 10-part series.
After two weeks of hard work at Tremblay Sound waiting for narwhal to go into the net, it was finally time to leave the remote outpost that had become so familiar to us.
But the story was not over.
The scientists managed to attach transmitter tags to five narwhals. Over the next few months, Jack Orr, back in the comfort of his office in Winnipeg, closely followed the movements of the tagged animals. Every two weeks I received updated narwhal position maps in my inbox, and marveled at the power of this technology that gave us unique insights into the world of narwhal.
“The Inuit know where the animals are in certain seasons of the year. But the tagging answers the question where they are in the winter when nobody can go,” said Orr. “You get an intimate understanding of the whales.”
Of course, technology doesn’t always work. One of the satellite radio tags malfunctioned or fell off within the first few weeks, but we were still able to follow the movements of the other four animals until late December. At that point we lost contact with all four whales. The tags all stopped transmitting information at the same time, which was a disappointment to everybody on the team given the amount of effort required to put these tags on the narwhals in the first place.
But this is also the reality of using high-tech equipment in the extreme Arctic. From programming glitches to tagged narwhals taken by hunters or killer whales, many things can happen.
“There is a whole host of reasons why we don’t always get the information,” said Orr.
On average the tags last five to six months, but a female narwhal previously tagged in Tremblay Sound kept transmitting data for 14 months, a record.
Despite these uncertainties, the data obtained from satellite tagging over the three-year period in Tremblay Sound provided valuable information on the narwhals’ migratory paths, overwintering regions, site fidelity, diving behaviours, and more. Researchers had already tagged narwhals in this area in the 1990s. The most recent data served to confirm that the animals from this specific population usually followed the same migration timing. They leave their summering grounds of northern Baffin Island in the fall and migrate to Davis Strait where they spend the winter. It has even been documented that they return to the same summering region where they were before.
“It gives you more confidence in knowing that these animals are doing the same thing as the animals that we tagged in the past,” Orr said.
It is remarkable to think that these narwhals return to the same fjords and inlets every summer. At the same time, the Arctic environment is changing fast, and it is not known how such a predictable and specialized species will fare in a highly variable ecosystem. In the face of climate change, increased shipping and commercial fishing pressures, industrial development, and seismic activity, how the narwhal will adapt remains a question mark.
Given those threats, there is a sense of urgency involved in better understanding the narwhal, but learning about such a remote and elusive species remains a slow process that will unfold over decades. It is never straightforward or easy, and scientists increasingly recognize the importance of traditional knowledge and involving Inuit hunters to help gain scientific information about those animals.
In the summer 2013, Orr and his indefatigable team went on a new Arctic adventure and looked for narwhal in a new area, Grise Fjord. They were slowed down by bad weather conditions and could not capture animals. Clint Wright tells the full story in his blog. They will try again next year. Every bit of data collected by the scientists year after year helps with the long-term conservation of the narwhal.
This is the last blog in this series, but if you want to learn more about narwhal, Science World is hosting a Cafe Scientifique dedicated to narwhals on November 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. Join an evening of discussion with University of Manitoba Ph.D. candidate Cortney Watt), Isabelle Groc, and a representative from WWF who will talk about research and conservation of this species.