Notes From the Field: Me and the unicorns of the sea

Notes From the Field: Me and the unicorns of the sea McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 27, 2007 - Volume 40 Number 03
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > September 27, 2007 > Notes From the Field: Me and the unicorns of the sea


Me and the unicorns of the sea

Caption follows
Marcoux measuring the tusk of a narwhal.

AUGUST 8—It’s 2 a.m. and I’m sitting up on a cliff at the mouth of Koluktoo Bay on the northern end of Baffin Island, Nunavut. I’m waiting for a unique type of whale, the narwhal, to come visit the bay. Since the sun does not set in this part of the country during the summer, it gives us the opportunity to work 24 hours a day. Luckily, I’m not alone; my colleague and friend, Marie Auger-Méthé, from Dalhousie University; one of our Inuit guides, Luke Suqslak and myself take turns doing the night shifts. While I’m waiting, I’m also looking around for polar bears. We saw one yesterday at about 800 meters from our camp. Thankfully, a hunter who was camping close to our campsite saw it first and scared it away. We also have a dog, Star, who is supposed to warn us when she sees a bear, although she didn’t do her job this time. It was the first polar bear I’ve ever seen and it made me realize that they are a real threat.

I finally hear the characteristic blows of a few pods of narwhals. They might just be scouting for the hundreds more to come. We have noticed that they like to come into the bay when the tide is high. The narwhals tend to swim very close to the point where we have set our campsite. This is well known to the people of community of Pond Inlet and several families of hunters come to camp at this same location. They come, as we did, via a three-to-four-hour boat ride and stay for a few days. The muktuk of the narwhal (the skin with a thin layer of fat) is a delicacy here, especially the muktuk of the young narwhals. The Inuit eat it raw, when fresh; boiled or fried; with soya sauce; or they age it under rocks for a few months. I have tasted it prepared a few different ways and I believe it’s an acquired taste—especially for a vegetarian.

AUGUST 10—Today, we had an amazing narwhal encounter! For more than seven hours, pods of narwhals were coming in and out of the bay. We also saw a group with six adults and a calf socializing in front. At least two of them were males (I could tell by the tusks, which are almost only found on males). They were pushing each other and showing their tusks above the water. This is very exciting because I’m interested in the behaviour of the narwhals and in the groups they form. I’m also trying to understand what brings them to the bay in the summer (the stomachs we opened from harvested narwhals were all empty, making us believe that they do not feed in the bay, even if we can see lots of one of their prey, the Arctic char).

To answer these questions, my colleague Marie is developing a photo-identification technique for the narwhals. It’s based on naturally occurring marks on the animal that are permanent and unique to the individual. She is hoping to use the notches and marks on the small ridge on the back of the narwhals. Using the pictures, I’ll be able to tell if individuals found in a group last year were still together this year.

AUGUST 16—Today, I had Luke listen to my hydrophone (a microphone that records the narwhals' vocalizations and other underwater sounds). Luke was amazed by the diversity of narwhal sounds. I'm trying to see if narwhals use different sounds in different contexts and I'm also curious to see if there is a difference between the sounds produced among the different groups of narwhals.

Yesterday, I observed a bowhead whale breaching at least 40 times. It was amazing to watch a 70-tonne whale lifting most of its body out of the water. I am very lucky to have encountered this Arctic giant since there might be only a few thousands of them left in the Eastern Arctic.

AUGUST 19—A family of hunters caught a narwhal in a net last night. It was a big male with a tusk measuring almost 2 metres. They succeeded in bringing the animal to the shore. I'm happy about this (even if I do not particularly enjoy watching a narwhal being opened and cut in pieces for consumption). I've seen too many other narwhals sinking without a trace after being shot. It's the reality of the hunt here and it's sometimes difficult for us "southern" researchers (as the Inuit call us) to witness.

SEPTEMBER 2—I met a hunter and asked him what he thinks about the mine that’s likely to open nearby Koluktoo Bay. The mining company, Baffinland, might use the bay as their main shipping corridor for the iron ore they want to extract. The hunter is worried for his sons because he wants them to be able to go camping in ten years as we are doing here right now. At the same time, he recognizes the great opportunities that the mine is bringing to the community. Nobody knows how shipping traffic could affect the narwhals or the traditional hunting.

SEPTEMBER 3—Only one night left. This means that in less than 24 hours, I'll have access to a hot shower and a bed, and I will have the chance to eat sitting at a table. But I'll definitely miss the sound of the narwhals.

Marianne Marcoux is a PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences under the supervision of Dr Murray Humphries. Together with Marie Auger-Méthé (Dalhousie University), she is taking the lead of the narwhal expedition (, a project partly funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society and the Canadian Whale Institute among others.

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Notes from the field