Camp life

August 22 & 23 – Camp life had turned into a routine and one day of scouting for narwhals had replaced the next in what seemed like an endless loop, without any sightings. Everyone was attending their own business, I was thinking of renewing my effort of catching an arctic char, this time with a fly tied from some muskox wool that I found among some shrubs, others were reading, hiking or passing time in any way that suited their personalities. Only two things were common for all: we spent hours cooking dinner when it was our turn and we all kept one eye on the positions of the three males, Bjarne, Helge, and Thor, that we tagged on the 11th. When I got up yesterday, the camp was already buzzing. The whales were on the move and were heading in our direction; with a bit of luck they would be bringing the rest of the pod with them. All day was spent refreshing the computer to see the latest positions and estimating when they would arrive in our fjord. As the day was advancing more and more people, locals and scientist alike, were heading for the hill behind camp, looking towards the horizon hoping to be the first to see the dark silhouettes. I stared through my binoculars trying to cover as much water as possible, but it quickly felt very unrealistic that I should be the one to sight them, with my lack of patience and experience!  Then the locals started to talk with a new tone in their voice as if they were now a bit more exited, and I understood. The narwhals had arrived as predicted.

I managed to get my thing in order, put on my survival suit and get ready just as the general commotion in camp let me know that it was time to head for the boat. I was in the fast boat with Hans Christian, a police officer with a lot of experience with whale tagging, as well as Inuuta, the ex-hunter employed by the project. Our job was to stay close to the whale as they were headed towards nets.  If one got caught we would immediately report the location on the radio and start the process of freeing them from the net, pulling them close to shore and securing them with a broad strap around the tail. The others would bring the instruments designed for the whale’s back in the two Zodiacs. Sometimes things do not go according to plan. Hans Christian, Inuuta and I returned to camp after an hour, disappointed and believing the narwhals had probably gotten away among the icebergs.  I mentally prepared for more days of eventless camp life. Maybe I should try that muskox fly? I had just managed to wiggle out of my survival suit when an agitated voice on the VHF radio called out: “There’s a whale in the net! There’s a whale in the net!” It was one on the locals watching the nets further down the shore. I recognized the voice, we would have to go a couple of kilometers north.

The speed of the boat felt like it was reshaping the muscles of my face, making this warm arctic summer day feel like winter. Summer returned as Inuuta slowed down the boat and steered us closer to the net. The locals were in their boat pulling the entangled narwhal to the surface so it could breathe. We quickly got in the water and rushed to the whale. As we slowly maneuvered the whale into shallower water I realized just how clear the water in this place was. The shape, coloration and every movement of the whale were clearly seen. It was a female, as seen by the lack of a tusk protruding from its forehead. Inuuta quickly put the strap around the base of its tail and Hans Christian and I cut the net to free the whale. At this moment, the two Zodiacs arrived and we were ready to mount the instruments to the narwhal’s back. As we stood there, waist deep in gin clear water pushing our legs against the sides of the whale, the satellite tag, the heart rate logger and the sound recorder were attached to the back. The whale was calm and Inuuta could untie the knot in the fluke strap, before we pushed it towards deeper water. As the water reached our armpits we gave the whale one last push and moved out of the way, so as not to stand in the path of the tail now thrusting the whale forward. I could see smiles on everyone’s face as the whale arched its back, dove, and disappeared. The seriousness that had been in the air a minute ago was gone. I guess we were all back in camp life mode.

That did not last, as the crackling noise from the VHF radio sounded again. Another whale was caught in a net just down the coast. I had a few things to gather so I was in the second of two Zodiacs to leave for our new destination. I was traveling with Mikkel Sinding, another geneticist from the Natural History Museum of Copenhagen, and Terry Williams, a wild life physiologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz. When we arrived the narwhal, a large male with a majestic tusk just short of the two-meter mark, was already freed from the net and the attachment of the instruments could begin. The water at this location was much murkier, but when leaning against the whale I could easily feel the greater power of this larger individual. Despite this, the instruments were attached as previously. The only change was that this time the sound recorder was mounted directly on the tusk.  After it releases, the recorder will hopefully come to the surface with valuable information on the narwhals’ echolocating clicks. The ride back to camp was one of joy. We had successfully tagged another two narwhals and even though the sun had long gone I felt energized only in need of one thing – the pasta dish left on the stove that I had just finished preparing before we left.

The following morning, I had just gotten out of my tent and was emptying my bladder. I had not been able to stay in my sleeping bag any longer even though I was still sleepy. As I stood there in the cold morning air I heard Mikkel Sinding yell: “There are whales right here!” I glanced over there and sure enough there they were, two narwhals swimming right by our camp, backs out of the water at a steady slow pace about 100 meters from shore. The following minutes were complete chaos. Everyone had to get their gear ready, which had been left a bit less organized than we intended to, due to our late return to camp the previous evening. However, I quickly found the bag that I had brought the previous evening. It still had all my kit in it, and after the laborious labor of putting on the survival suit I threw it on my back. One of the two whales was now caught in the net closest to the camp and while the others were approaching the site in the Zodiac I ran there as fast as possible in my clumsy outfit. Soon after we were again waist deep in murky water framing the narwhal with our legs while fitting instruments. The docile camp life was gone and fieldwork was turning out as exciting as I had hoped for. This whale was fitted with a single instrument, a combined position, salinity, temperature and depth recorder, so after a quick attachment it was ready to be released.

As a last farewell, it made an enormous splash with its tail, showering us with water before it descended into the deep. It is amazing how these animals that swim away in the calm waters of the inner fjord just disappear, leaving us to rely on the satellite tags to reveal their next positions. As I took the walk back to camp dragging the boots that felt heavier than ever, my mind was now fixed on breakfast, coffee especially, and maybe even a little nap. I guess I could do with a few days of camp life.

Written by Mikkel Skovrind