Antennas in the ice

August 12 – After breakfast, we agreed that time had come to go collect the acoustic tag (Acousonde) and the two heart rate monitors that had fallen off the three tagged narwhals. We packed a lunch, consisting of mostly chocolate, as well as a satellite phone and VHF radio before putting on but Inuuta the survival suits and getting in the 19-ft. dingy equipped with a 150 bhp outboard engine. Soon thereafter we were heading towards the first tag, flying fast across the calm waters of Fønfjord. However, as the fjord got narrower the waves forced us to slow down a bit, but only for half an hour after which we reached more open calm water that again allowed us to go full speed ahead. We, Inuuta the ex-hunter employed by the project and I, reached the position of the Acousonde that had been the first instrument to fall off a whale. Here we were, around 90 km from camp among scattered pieces of ice, some small and others the size of houses, looking for two small antennas sticking up from the mirror-like surface, reflecting the Arctic sun. Now came the time for the VHF transmitter attached to the Acousonde to do its job and direct us to its precise position.

After an hour with no luck, in the best of conditions with no waves or rain, we still had nothing to show for our effort. I was starting to lose faith in my own ability to spot the tag, but Inuuta seemed to be enjoying the search. Maybe it reminded him of hunting. I could not avoid noticing how intensely he was watching the seals whenever they popped their head out of the water as little black shapes against the glistening surface. Finally, it happened. Inuta had seen it, and now I saw it as well: a little to the left and 50 meters past a floating piece of ice the size of a car. We went there fast, picked it up, turned it off and stored it in a rucksack. Susanna, back at camp, was going to be busy later, I thought. One down, two to go.

We used the satellite phones to check the latest position of the heart rate monitors. They were still close together in Gåsefjord as they had been for the last couple of days ever since they fell off the whales. I just managed to hear Inuta say that they were 72 km away, before his voice was drowned by the engine. It was going to be cold. The sun had disappeared behind the incoming clouds and the speed of the boat was an additional chill factor. As we moved further into the fjord the icebergs started to become more and more frequent so our straight line turned to a curvy path between the floating obstacles. The sound of the engine, which a minute ago seemed a never-ending monotone soundtrack to the beautiful landscape, was now interrupted by the sound of small bits of floating ice hitting the boat and after a few kilometers we had to slow down. As open water got more and more difficult to find and our progress got slower we made a stop to assess the situation. Coordinates from the satellite phone informed us that the nearest tag was still 26 kilometers away. It was not an option to continue, so we had to go back with only one third of our mission accomplished.

After making a phone call back to base camp in Hjørnedal we turned the boat around and headed home. My thoughts were on warm food and coffee as we again reached full speed. We made a stop at Danmarks Ø to refuel and Inuuta kept sending long looks after every seal we saw. Around 6:30 pm we saw the tents and small wooden buildings in the bottom of Fønfjord and when we had our feet back on dry land we received great news – we were having musk ox burgers for dinner! As far as the two heart rate monitors go, we still have some unfinished business, but that will have to wait for another day.

 

Mikkel Skovrind

Mikkel Skovrind is a PhD student at the center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen. In Hjørnedal, Mikkel will collect samples from narwhals’ respiratory passages and from their faeces in order to analyze the bacterial composition in narwhals. The samples will be analyzed at the University using state of the art DNA methods. The results of the analyses will be the first ever from an Arctic cetacean and will help us understand how a warm-blooded mammal get help from bacteria to survive in the cold water.