What’s Going to Happen to the Narwhal in the Northwest Passage?

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An interview with marine biologist Kristin Westdal.

By Eva Holland


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As I noted in my recent Pacific Standard feature about the growing cruise ship industry in the Northwest Passage, conservation organization Oceans North Canada has been conducting an acoustic monitoring project near Pond Inlet, Nunavut — attempting to determine the effects, if any, of increased shipping noise on the narwhal who summer in the area’s fjords.

The narwhal is the famous, though rarely seen, unicorn of the sea: It’s a small-ish whale with a long, tapered tusk — actually a tooth — protruding from its mouth. Found only in the High Arctic, primarily in Canadian and Greenlandic waters, its closest relative is the beluga. Narwhal are not listed as endangered or threatened; they are still hunted for food by the resident Inuit. But they’re known to be shy and skittish around boats, and no one knows how increased traffic in the Arctic will affect them.

For more information, I spoke with Kristin Westdal, the Oceans North marine biologist working on the project, just days before she was set to return to the Arctic to install the equipment for this year’s phase of the study.

Where do things stand now?

We’ve had hydrophones up in Pond Inlet for the last two years; we’re going into our third year of research. The first year, we had two hydrophones, and then we had four, and this year we’re doing three — two ourselves, and one in combination with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The idea is that, the community was concerned about shipping so we’re working to address that, and also to fill the gaps in [existing] research.

Do you drop the hydrophones into the water after the ice has broken up for summer, and then retrieve them in the fall?

It’s actually really nice to go when there’s still ice, and then we can deploy through the ice and have this great platform to work off of. There are less safety issues when you don’t have to worry about where people are on the boat, when you’re throwing a lot of weight off the side of the boat. So we’ll be deploying in the spring and then we pick them up again in the fall.

How does that work?

Initially I had thought we would drill a hole in the ice, but the community members we’re working with thought that was quite funny. The ice is really thick, so we pick a location that we have pre-decided based on currents and depth and locations of movement of ships and animals, and then we basically look for a seal hole that is fairly close in proximity to where we want to be. And they’re the perfect size to drop everything through.

What are you actually dropping?

There are weights — this year we bought fitness equipment, like actual heavy weights that we use. So there’s the weight, and then we have a drag anchor, and then we have a line with a number of buoys and the equipment on it. It’s not above the surface — you wouldn’t see it going by. It has an acoustic release, so [in the fall, for retrieval] you go out fairly close to where you dropped it in, and you punch in a code that’s associated with that release, and just like magic, it pops up.

And the sound being picked up by the hydrophones — that encompasses both the Baffinland mine’s iron ore shipments and any cruise traffic?

We should be able to pick up any boats within a certain distance of the hydrophones. Our focus is more on shipping in general, and not on one versus another — but yeah, any boats in the region, we should be able to pick up.

What is it that you’re hoping to find?

We’re looking for change, essentially. The questions we were interested in: Is there a change in vocalization of narwhal? So, are they compensating for any sound that might be coming by? Or are they ceasing to communicate at all? Is there any change in that regard? And then the second question is: Are they disturbed spatially? So are they leaving the area, or are they just fine, staying in the area when there are ships? We have some preliminary results but we’re going into this third year hoping for some confirmation on that.


Kristin Westdal. (Photo: Twitter)

We have one hydrophone in Milne Inlet, which is where the bigger ships are moving down to the mine. Cruise ships also come in that way . There are lots of narwhal in the area, so the narwhal are in Eclipse [Sound] but they’re also moving into Milne and into another fjord, called Tremblay Sound, which is next door and it’s quite narrow — it’s the next fjord over from Milne Inlet. So we have one hydrophone in each to kind of see the difference between ships and no ships.

[Editor’s Note: The third hydrophone will be located closer to the community of Pond Inlet, and is being used primarily to measure the levels of background noise in the ocean itself.]

What’s the timeline on this project? Will it continue beyond this year?

The HTO [the Hunters and Trappers Organization, in the nearby community of Pond Inlet] has said that they’re interested in carrying on some of this work, and we would really hope that the community would take it over. So that’s part of why we’re working with the Scripps Institute in California—they have a long-term plan to be involved in acoustic monitoring in the Arctic … I really hope that this is a long term plan; whether or not Oceans North is involved is irrelevant to me. I just want this program to keep going no matter what.

I normally think of whales as being friendly and curious, but narwhal are notoriously rare sightings. Why are narwhal so shy?

I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve spent a lot of time around them, and a lot of time around belugas especially — and they are completely different, and they are very difficult to approach. It may be that people often see them in areas where they’re harvested — so we may find that they’re skittish because of where people are seeing them, and that they don’t want to be near boats. They know what the consequences of that are. Whereas other whales, in different parts of Canada, you can see them where there’s no hunting happening. That could be one explanation for it.

Is the narwhal population healthy?

There’s very little information on narwhal populations, but the global population is estimated around 100,000 animals, and the largest population is wintering in Baffin Bay and then summering in the Canadian Arctic.… We don’t have records going back all that far so it’s difficult to understand any kind of swings in population numbers. We think that they’re healthy. There’s no indication that they’re not.

How has the local community responded?

We’re working with the community, and there’s a lot of interest in the community, which is really important to me and to Oceans North. And I think it’s a really important issue to address. Because this question and this concern is only going to be increasing in the future. More ship traffic, more cruises, and we have no idea what the ramifications of this are — so the idea of getting a baseline and a basic understanding is super important. I’m really happy that we’re on this right now.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.