Worth the wait: Encountering bowhead whales in Canada’s Arctic


Arctic Whales and seals



We arrived in Igloolik hoping to find community members with boats to hire to take us out to find bowhead whales.

By Morgan J. Martin, WCS Canada postdoc at the University of Victoria in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada working on behavioral responses of bowhead whales to shipping noise.

The pandemic kept me grounded for two years, the research conditions were challenging, but when I finally did make it to Igloolik in Nunavut, it was an experience I will never forget.

When I started a three-year postdoctoral researcher position at WCS Canada in June 2020, I was supposed to hit the ground running and immediately begin my postdoc with a summer Arctic field season attempting to tag bowhead whales. But the world was a bit upside-down at that time and the local Inuit communities had closed their doors to any outside visitors. This continued through 2021 as the pandemic unfolded, so I missed a second summer Arctic fieldwork season and I began to wonder if I would ever get to visit the Arctic communities.

That’s why I was very excited to learn that my summer 2022 Arctic fieldwork season was going to happen. On June 18, 2022, I traveled to the community of Igloolik, located on Igloolik Island in Nunavut, joining a fieldwork team with three scientists from the federal Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s Arctic program. We arrived in Igloolik hoping to find community members with boats to hire to take us out to find bowhead whales.

On our second night in town, we met with the Igloolik Hunters and Trappers Association (HTA) who are responsible for approving any research proposals in the area. Our meeting with the HTA lasted three hours with the HTA members asking lots of good questions about our research plans. That’s not surprising because the Arctic is changing rapidly thanks to climate change and the people living in Igloolik have experienced these changes firsthand. They are therefore keen to closely monitor how climate change stands to further impact their community.

The members of the HTA approved our research and kindly offered for us to stay in their hunting shelters located near the ice floe edge. The purpose of our fieldwork was to tag bowhead whales with satellite tags as well as with non-invasive suction cup tags that contain hydrophones (underwater acoustic recorders) that can record the whales’ movements in three dimensions underwater.

Our aim was to collect bowhead whale behavior data in a pristine Arctic region where vessel traffic has increased and is anticipated to continue to increase primarily due to mining on Baffin Island (a proposal to expand the Baffin Island iron ore mine was recently denied due to its environmental impacts, but the company has now revived a different proposal for shipping more ore from the mine). We need a better understanding of how bowhead whales react to vessels and underwater vessel noise to understand the impacts of this growing ship traffic.

Three experienced hunters from Igloolik joined our team with two small, motorized boats as we set out to try to find and tag bowhead whales. Tagging the whales with the suction cup tags proved to be difficult due to the ice conditions and the whales’ behavior. The whales were spending most of their time hanging out in the pack ice, where we were unable to drive the boat to get close enough to them to apply the suction cup tags. We resorted to standing on the edge of the ice floe and waiting for the bowheads to travel in and out of the pack ice to reach them.

Next summer, we are going to take a bit of a different approach by using a second type of tag that does not need to be retrieved once it falls off the whale and can be deployed from slightly farther away, which we hope will help increase the number of whales we can tag. We also plan to play back underwater recordings of vessel noise to the tagged bowhead whales in order to measure how they respond to noise underwater. This will give us the ability to assess how the whales’ behavior changes in response to vessel noise and to try to determine what noise level causes the whales to react.

Arctic fieldwork is not glamorous. It is cold and exhausting and unbelievably beautiful at the same time. We spent 12 consecutive nights in the shelters provided by the HTA. There was no indoor plumbing, no bathroom and no one showered during that time. We collected snow every day to melt for our drinking water. We left our campsite around 8 a.m. each morning to launch the boats at the edge of the ever-changing floe edge and we were usually not back in our camp until around 10 p.m. each night. I ate a lot of pop-tarts, and ramen noodles were an absolute staple for everyone during the day.

We ate dinner together around midnight, and then we all crashed because we had to repeat everything the following morning. The sun never set and just circled around us overhead. It was mentally and physically one of the more challenging things I have done. Todd, Levi and Travis, the Igloolik community members who were working with us to find the bowhead whales, worked non-stop and they kept things moving smoothly. We shared many laughs on the boat and around the dinner table at night. Our research would not have been possible without them because they knew the local waters and navigated around sea ice with ease.

My experience in Igloolik shaped me in ways that I was not expecting. I came home with an extreme sense of gratitude for everyday luxuries like running water and fresh produce. I am no stranger to living in remote places. However, the Arctic climate is harsh and I have a newfound respect for the people who call it home. The opportunity to see bowhead whales up close is something I will never forget. These are the second largest creatures by mass that live on planet Earth. After two years of studying about bowheads, finally seeing them in person truly was a life highlight. They made me feel small, mortal, and left me revering at the same time. I am proud to have been part of a research team at WCS Canada working to protect these animals from the impacts of shipping in the Arctic.

Check out a Story Map about our work with Bowhead whales.

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Addressing impacts from shipping and climate change in the western Arctic