Narwhal camp

Words by Brandon Laforest
Photographs courtesy of WWF-Canada

Working in Nunavut is remarkably similar to working anywhere else in the world.

However, there are some unique differences – for example, passing a snowshoe hare while strolling across the tundra to work rather than commuting via a congested highway or a cramped subway. In the middle of winter in Iqaluit the sun doesn’t rise until 9.30am, and it sets around four hours later. The summer sun rises at 2am and doesn’t disappear until 11pm. Regulating your body’s natural rhythm takes some adjustment.

Working on remote sites, such as narwhal camp, takes even more adjusting. Nunavut is home to less than 40,000 residents, 85% of whom are Inuit, in a territory nearly eight times the size of the UK. To get to narwhal camp we first have to fly 1,000km to Pond Inlet, a hamlet of 1,600 residents near the top of Baffin Island and the entrance to the Northwest Passage, as there are no roads connecting Nunavut’s 25 far-flung communities. From there, it’s another few hours by boat to reach the camp set-up on the shore of Tremblay Sound.

When out in the field, I am always stunned the vastness of the area and the feeling of total isolation. We operate in a small group working constantly on meals, checking equipment, setting up temporary structures or cleaning up. But most importantly, we watch for narwhal. I remember on one occasion, being woken up at 4am by calls from the crew and then witnessing hundreds of narwhal swimming by in the morning light of the High Arctic summer. You could hear the cacophony of the narwhal breathing in unison, the steam from their breath rising as they quickly bobbed their heads above water while travelling further into the inlet.

I’m WWF-Canada’s senior specialist on Arctic species and ecosystems, leading our work on beluga whales, bowhead whales, barren-ground caribou, narwhal, polar bears and Atlantic walrus. Conservation work has always been a goal of mine, from loving wildlife as a kid to pursuing wildlife biology in university where I was lucky enough to do a field course in the Canadian Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba and fall in love with the North. Canada is home to so much incredible and iconic Arctic wildlife that it’s a dream to be able to work on conservation here.

Coming from a primarily scientific background, my perspective changed when I moved to Iqaluit and became more immersed in the cultural and community aspects of conservation. WWF-Canada is the only environmental NGO with a permanent office in the territory of Nunavut and we work closely with Inuit communities towards shared conservation goals. It is really that combination of science, advocacy and community partnerships that defines how we work and allows us to achieve conservation wins in the North.

Paul Nicklen WWF Arctic narwhal
narwhal breach arctic paul nicklen
narwhal Paul Nicklen

This is how Narwhal camp operates too. It’s an initiative by the Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans – with WWF acting as a long-time and proud supporter, having contributed funding and field expertise since 2014 – to better understand narwhal and their ecosystem as there is relatively little known about them compared to other whales. It involves the capture and tagging of narwhal as well as research into the area’s other animals and environmental features.

Fieldwork in the Arctic is logistically challenging – and expensive – and narwhal camp relies on local communities who host and support the effort. Working in Nunavut you quickly learn that conservation is not just about the wildlife – it is about the people who live in the North and depend on the wildlife and the health of the ecosystem. As a result, the camp relies heavily on local Inuit participants due to their knowledge of the area and fieldwork skills.

Researching narwhal poses numerous challenges: the remoteness of their range; the extreme difficulty in getting them to cooperate and go in the net you use for catching them; and the high cost and high risk of the research (in terms of potentially not catching any narwhal). There have been years where no narwhal have been caught through the whole narwhal camp season, but that’s the reality of fieldwork. You also want to minimise the stress on the animal and try to be as quick as possible when working with them. The other challenge is the weather. Even summer months in the High Arctic can bring sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms.

What fascinates me the most about narwhal is their extreme migrations and their different life strategies over the course of the year. During the winter, the narwhal dive extremely deep underwater in search of food and live among the ice cracks in areas that are over 95% frozen over. They then migrate thousands of kilometres from their wintering grounds in the deepest part of Baffin Bay to the shallow inlets of northern Baffin Island in the summer, giving birth along the way and raising their young in their summering habitat.

Narwhal research is a long-term endeavour that takes years of investment to achieve results. Ultimately, we’ve collected a lot of movement data from tagging that’s currently being analysed to more precisely answer our questions. What areas are the most important for narwhal along their range? What is the timing and location of their annual migrations? And what behavioural changes are narwhal exhibiting with a warming climate, reduced sea ice cover, and increased human presence in the Arctic from natural resource development and shipping? Previous work we have supported has identified certain inlets as being more important than others and will hopefully lead to the prioritisation of these areas as no-go zones for ships and development.

Narwhal Eric Baccega
Narwhal camp

As for ocean sound, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done when it comes to understanding the effects of noise pollution on narwhal as they’re a very vocal species and rely on echolocation to hunt their prey. Studies have found that out of seven Arctic marine mammals, the narwhal is the most vulnerable to vessel traffic in the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route during the open water season. As a result, they’re highly exposed to future shipping paths and they’re also the most vulnerable to those threats. At various points during the year, 90% of the world’s narwhal population can be found in Canadian waters, so we have a unique responsibility to conserve and effectively manage this species.

We want to work with our community partners to ensure resilient and healthy narwhal populations that can be sustainably harvested by Inuit people who depend on them. People in Greenland and northern Canada depend on narwhal as a source of food and have been living among and harvesting narwhal for millennia. Narwhal play a huge role in the culture and history of many groups of Inuit people and continue to do so today. The conservation of narwhal in Canada is dependent on Inuit involvement and contributions as they are the only people who live in the range of narwhal and hold an intense amount of knowledge on their behaviour and life history.

We also want to ensure their habitat is conserved and that the entire range and migration of the narwhal is considered when making decisions on future development activities and shipping routes. It is this networked approach to protected areas that that will be crucial for migratory species such as narwhal that have reliable habitat usage patterns that vary seasonally. On their wintering grounds one of the biggest threats would be decreased food availability through overfishing by people, and in the summer one of the biggest threats is disturbance of new mothers and their calves. The more we know about the life history of narwhal and their movements, the more we can tailor our conservation efforts to limit the disturbances they face while ensuring the integrity of the habitat they need.

Narwhal have also been identified as the Arctic marine mammal most sensitive to the effects of a warming climate, so there are good reasons to be worried about the species. At WWF-Canada, we’re working to better understand what their habitat requirements will be in the face of climate change so that we can ensure a future where narwhal thrive.

Photographs courtesy of Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock; Francis Beaudet; / Eric Baccega & Doug Allen; provided by WWF-Canada.

Photographs courtesy of WWF-Canada