How we helped bring elusive narwhal to your screen

“Narwhals are extremely timid and rarely filmed underwater.”
 – David Attenborough, host, Our Planet.

Filming nature and wildlife is no easy feat, only made possible by multiple production teams, researchers and local experts coming together. And that’s precisely what was required to bring Netflix’s Our Planet to your screens. The new eight-part docuseries took four years to complete, and through it all, WWF was there to advise on the science. As WWF-Canada’s Arctic species specialist, I helped make connections between the filmmakers and locals who advised about whales roaming northern waters. 

This, in part, resulted in this breathtaking scene.

At the time, the production team was interested in filming narwhals, belugas and bowhead whales — the main marine mammals found in the Canadian Arctic. But in the end, only the tusked whale made the cut. 

In 2016, Our Planet researcher Olly Scholey embarked on a week-long trip to Nunavut to help get the production crew a few steps closer to capturing narwhal on film.  As a resident of Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, and a wildlife expert, I was thrilled to guide him through the icy terrain.   

I introduced Olly to wildlife regulators who shared insights on whale behaviour and on less exciting matters like obtaining permits. From there, we travelled to one of Canada’s most northern communities, Arctic Bay, where Inuit see narwhals from May to September. While in the hamlet, we met with locals who told us the best places to film narwhals. 

How we helped bring elusive narwhal to your screen
Arctic Bay, Nunavut, where locals often catch a glimpse of narwhals in the summer. Connecting with locals is an important step in securing footage of wildlife in the region. © Olly Scholey

Since Olly was new to Nunavut, it was important for him to build relationships with community members who would sign off on filming in the region, and later be essential to the filming process; nature videographers rely on locals to lead production teams to habitats and prevent human-wildlife conflict.

Brandon Laforest, in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, during his trip with an Our Planet researcher. Brandon’s wearing a locally-made hat. © Olly Scholey

While WWF-Canada was involved in the “Frozen Worlds” episode of Our Planet, WWF teams around the globe helped guide production to ensure the captivating wildlife featured were portrayed in the most accurate light – even if that meant showing devastating scenes play out on camera. We immensely enjoyed our small role, but above all, we love hearing how much viewers have embraced the series and are taking it a step further by becoming more engaged in conservation issues. If that’s you, we encourage you to be a Wildlifer.

Our Planet is streaming now on Netflix