Where do the Narwhal go?

Last month I joined an experienced field crew in north Baffin Island, on a great WWF-funded applied conservation project investigating the movements and dive behaviour of Narwhal.

Setting up net buoys/marker floats (c) Pete Ewins/WWF-Canada
The Narwhal is one of WWF’s top priority Arctic species, and like polar bear, ringed seal, and beluga and bowhead whales, it evolved superb adaptations to life in a marine ice-dominated ecosystem.  But under times of rapid climate change, its very important to know where they breed, molt, feed and on what, at different times of year.  Basically, what their overall annual needs are.  For nearly 2 weeks I worked at a remote fieldcamp west of Pond Inlet, with Inuit from the Pond Inlet HTO (Hunters and Trappers Organisation), and the world’s top scientists for narwhal, from Canada and USA.  This general area is the world’s main concentration of summering narwhal, and we had the best field season ever – catching 13 narwhal, and fitting 9 of them with satellite radio transmitters, to beam back weekly information on the position of the animals, as well as their diving depths and other data.

Beyond the overall stunning experience of seeing and handling these mystical, strong yet very sensitive whales, there were many new surprises for me – even though I’d seen lots of narwhal before.  Some of these new insights include that Narwhal are highly social animals, totally panicked by any killer whales in the vicinity, and well able to see us from below the water surface as we stood on the shore 1km away! It is still very unknown what they’re eating and doing exactly up these long fjords/inlets. The tusks of the males – ah yes, much written and theorised about, but now increasingly clear, to me at least, that these are indeed sophisticated modified canine sensory organs, rather than having  a mainly sexual display function. And finally, they have strong family ties: we saw mothers with young-of-the-year, and also teenagers in tow.

Our field routine on 3-hour shifts at the remote fieldcamp (watching the catching net offshore, but totally alert 24-7 for polar bears too!) generated some almost extra-terrestrial scenes in the suspended daylight cycle of mid- August – nature takes a breath, but doesn’t really sleep!  And then often around 2am along come hundreds of narwhal up the fjord, and ‘boom’ !, down go the net buoys/marker  floats, and off goes our hooter, instantly rousing everyone from tents, and then into the zodiacs, and within only a few minutes 2 or 3 narwhal are safely in the shallows and our measurements and tag fitting commence.

This is field research at its very best – local experts and world-class scientists combining efforts and knowledge to help improve our understanding of what this species needs.  Now our job is to help convince decision-makers to accommodate what we know of the narwhal’s needs, in the quickly evolving marine spatial plans for the arctic – before those key areas are allocated to commercial/industrial uses!