The floe edge, north of Baffin and Bylot Island has been calm and peaceful today, covered in a shallow pool of water that perfectly reflects the icebergs that protrude from it. You think back to just half an hour ago when the silence was disturbed only by the occasional perfectly formed flock of eider ducks, their webbed feet causing the slightest ripple on the calm, clear surface of the waters of Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait. Now as you sit by a crack in the heavy pack ice, clothed in a dry suit and placing a snorkel on your face, your heart is beating what feels like a hundred times per minute. Despite being just inches from the edge, the ice beneath your feet is firm, a confident barrier between you and the deep, cold and seemingly endless stretch of water ahead. A stretch of water you are just about to enter.
The larger tusks of the males pierce the water and for a moment as they play near the surface and you swim amongst them, you feel a mutual bond with these unique unicorns of the sea.
Some will have had narwhals on their ‘must see’ list since they can remember, others won’t have heard of them until now. Either way, we offer one of the most unique and fascinating ways to see them, by actually swimming with them in the chilly waters of the Arctic.
Where and when
Being one of the deepest diving cetaceans, narwhal prefer deep water year round and have been recorded at depths of over 1,000 metres. In the summer they arrive at the floe edge at Lancaster Sound and between Bylot and Baffin Islands and attempt to swim through the cracks in the ice to their summering grounds in Eclipse Sound, Admirality Inlet or Prince Regent Inlet. They then return back down Baffin Bay and Davis Strait in September and October to the winter grounds.
The summer months, as they pace the floe edge hunting for a way further in, is the best time to see them. Lancaster Sound and the floe edge between Bylot and Baffins Islands are the best place, as groups from one to fifty surface right by the edge of the ice, and you may even see them making their way up through the cracks in the ice. In their summer and winter grounds, they stay in the deep water and are very difficult to see.
Narwhal are creatures of habit and despite spending most of their time off shore, they predictably come to the same fjords and passes on their way between their winter and summer homes. In the winter they stay in a relatively small area, sticking to very deep water, away from the fast ice. This has lead to them being able to dive to incredible depths for up to 25 minutes at a time to enable them to successfully feed. They dive between 18 and 25 times per day, and hence spend an incredible amount of time deep under the water in these cold winter months.
During the Spring, with summer fast approaching, the fast ice around Baffin Island, Bylot Island and Lancaster Island begins to melt. The narwhal head towards the coast, northwards towards their summer grounds exploring the fast receding floe edge looking for cracks in which they can make their way further. This is the best time to see them, as they tend to seek the cracks in the same areas year on year.
In the summer they often only dive from 30 to 300 metres to find food, and spend a lot more time at the surface. It is possible to see them at this time as well. As Autumn comes in they speedily escape their summer grounds before the fast ice freezes them over. At this time, unlike the Spring, they spend little time lingering around and generally swim directly to deeper, safer waters.
How can I see the narwhal migration?
The best way to see the narwhal migration is during the Spring as they navigate the ice cracks and floe edges north of Baffin Island. You can camp just back from the floe edge itself between Bylot and Baffin, and spend your days relaxing on the floe edge, watching out for narwhal and other wildlife, from eider ducks to beluga whales and walruses.
Best time to go