I almost wish that I had started research on my narwhal book a year later. Because that would mean that I might have had an opportunity to join a team of Oceans North Canada scientists in the first research expedition to follow narwhals as they migrate from the coast of Greenland to the fjords of Canada’s Nunavut province. They depart this week and will survey the numbers of narwhals, belugas, bowheads and other whales they see, monitor migrating whale sounds, survey seabirds and trawl for plankton as part of a polar bear food-chain study. Sounds like a great trip.
But I can’t complain too much. I’ve had plenty of pretty spectacular narwhal adventures of my own. The midnight jousting session 50 feet from my campsite on a beach in Koluktoo Bay, the first time I had a clear look at a narwhal tusk, may be the most mesmerizing moment of my life, and thinking back on it now more than two years later still gives me a jolt of excitement that I pray never diminishes. I’m still not sure whether it was the quiet, slow-motion activities of the whales, the spectacular rocky hillsides and iceberg-filled waters, or the unexpectedness of the experience after having already gone to bed that makes that observation rise to the top in my mind. But it does.
And yet there were plenty of other moments that I won’t soon forget either. The parade of narwhals traveling back and forth day after day in Tremblay Sound, skillfully avoiding the researchers’ nets and providing a daily dose of frustration while impressing us at the same time with their remarkable navigational abilities. The more determined parade of narwhals streaking close by our boat in Eclipse Sound, caring not a whit for the threat we posed, for they were far more concerned about escaping from the pod of hungry killer whales that was chasing them. The honks and moos and twitters and whistles and creaky doors and other bizarre sounds the whales made as I listened in on their conversations with a hydrophone in the middle of Kolukotoo Bay. The first time I touched a narwhal – still warm after having been killed just minutes earlier – its skin soft and leathery and firm all at once, and my first taste of its blubber and its meat soon afterwards, something I’ll never say was tasty but which I’m pleased to have shared with the proud hunters.
I have had weeks of adventures that make me more enamored of the narwhal than when I started writing my book about them. How it can thrive in its icy world and find food in the dark depths will always amaze me. And yet despite their great skill and flexibility and physiological adaptations that enable them to undertake their entire life cycle in conditions that few creatures can withstand, and despite what I’ve learned about their somewhat stable populations from the world’s experts, I still worry about them.
Today, though, I’m just enjoying those amazing memories. If you want to keep track of the Oceans North Canada expedition as it follows the narwhal migration, check out www.oceansnorth.org/2011-arctic-whale-survey.