Your field guide to narwhal tagging with Dr. Pete Ewins

In August 2011, WWF’s Senior Arctic Species Officer, Dr. Pete Ewins, spent two weeks on Baffin Island with a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Inuit community narwhal tagging team.
How did you wind up tagging narwhal?
Over the years, I’d come to know all the main wildlife research specialists in the Arctic, and through my DFO connections was able to set up WWF’s financial support on this great project investigating where narwhal annual movements.  With my experience as a field biologist, I was invited to join the team of 14 – including scientists  and local Inuit hunters – who went out and actually caught the narwhal and put the radios on them.  Another example of why I have the best job in the world!
Was this your first hands-on encounter with narwhal?
It was, though I’d certainly seen narwhal before in my travels in Nunavut.  Because narwhal tend to be pretty skittish when you’re on a big ship, and they don’t come very far above the surface when swimming, you don’t get a very good view.  But this live capture work was up close and personal.
 Pete narwhal tagging
How do you tag narwhal?
We put out a 100 metre net in a remote fjord that we knew the narwhal frequented.  As soon as we had one in the net, it was a precision operation.  The alarm – a marine horn – sounds and everyone jumps straight into their survival gear (the water was not warm) and into the boats.  We then haul the narwhal up (within 2-3 minutes) and get its head above water so it can breathe.  Your adrenaline is pumping.
It takes quite a few people to hold a 3 metre narwhal in place.  As the new guy, I was assigned the job of restraining the powerful tail – I was sent flying quite a few times by the adult narwhal writhing in the shallows!  DFO scientists bored three pencil-sized holes in the blubber along the dorsal ridge.  These tiny skin-blubber specimens were used for contaminants and genetic research, and Teflon rods were inserted through the holes to hold the satellite radio transmitter unit in place.  The tracker is about the size of a small cellphone.  At the same time, we took standard measurements and experts ran some tests on the tusk, all while a physiology expert ensured the stress levels of the whale were within the acceptable limits.  The whole operation was done in less than 30 minutes.
Does this hurt the narwhal?
Not much, because the blubber has very few nerve endings.  Narwhal are designed to heal quickly because their skin is so important to their hydrodynamics, so once they eject the rods – usually one to 10 months later (the record is 14 months) – they heal right up.  Their skin feels like neoprene or rubber, and gives like flabby human skin.
What did we learn from these trackers, and how does it help us protect narwhal?
The high-tech satellite radio tracker devices show us where narwhals spend their time and how they travel between their main summer and winter habitats, so we can assess how they’ll be affected by things like increased Arctic shipping and oil and gas development.  We still have a lot to learn about narwhal, particularly about where they spend their summers, which is why this was such a good project.  The trackers also tell us that they can even dive to feed on the seabed over a mile beneath the surface of Baffin Bay !  All of this data will allow us to better manage human activities in these marine habitats to allow the narwhal to have what they need too.