Arctic Expedition to Study Whale Migration Begins


An eight-member Arctic expedition led by the Pew Environment Group's Oceans North Canada campaign left Ilulissat, Greenland on June 7th to study one of the greatest whale migrations in the world. During their monthlong voyage on the 45-foot Arctic Endeavor, expedition members will collect scientific data on narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales in the North Water Polynya and Lancaster Sound.

"We are thrilled at the opportunity to learn more about these marine mammals," said Chris Debicki, expedition leader and Nunavut projects director for Oceans North Canada. "Difficult ice conditions have until now prevented anyone from using a boat this size to follow the spring migration, so there are huge gaps in what we know about the whales' journey through the Arctic."

The Lancaster 2011: Arctic Whale Survey team includes two marine biologists and an Inuit hunter from the Baffin Island community of Pond Inlet who will gather data about whales and seabirds in the eastern Arctic. They will survey marine mammal populations, monitor whale acoustics, count seabird populations and take plankton samples for a study of polar bear diets. Studies were designed in collaboration with other researchers, including one of Canada's foremost narwhal experts.

Oceans North Canada Lancaster Sound Expedition MapThe expedition will also highlight the strong connections between marine regions in Greenland and Canada. After leaving Ilulissat, the expedition will travel up the coast into the North Water Polynya, an area of open water surrounded by sea ice between Greenland and Canada in northern Baffin Bay. This 85,000-square-kilometre (32,819-square-mile) polynya is the world's largest, creating a warm microclimate that provides a refuge for narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales to feed and rest.

The expedition will then follow the whales south into Lancaster Sound, where researchers will help document the exceptional biological productivity of this region. The expedition aims not only to increase scientific knowledge about marine mammals but also to raise awareness about why the Canadian government needs to move quickly to designate the sound a national marine conservation area.

Expedition members also plan to share their findings with Inuit communities in the region that rely on healthy populations of marine mammals for sustenance. As melting ice allows increasing access for industrial-scale development, scientific research and traditional knowledge are needed to monitor existing populations and project trends into an uncertain future.

June 14th Expedition Update: Listen to a recording of bearded seals.