October 26, 2022 | SOMERSET ISLAND


Some experiences defy retelling.

Some experiences are so meaningful and so outside the realm of ordinary life that converting them from memories into anecdotes runs the risk of depleting their magic. For Skyli, the day she swam with narwhals off Somerset Island is one such memory. “I kind of keep it to myself,” she said. “People don’t know what a narwhal is or what the conditions are or how right that moment had to be. My husband knows about it and a couple of my friends, but it felt private. It was too profound to try to talk about in a casual way.”

After visiting both Arctic Watch and Arctic Haven, Skyli, whose career has revolved around marine conservation and policy, found herself craving a return to the arctic. “I love wilderness of all flavors,” she said, “and when I got to Somerset the first time, I instantly fell in love with it. But I also yearned for something deeper.”

Skyli wanted a one-on-one encounter with the Arctic and approached the Webers about putting together a trip with a private guide. The family—having gotten a flavor of what she was looking for over her two trips with them—started mulling over how best to realize her vision, a process that ended up taking several years. “Through Dan Achber at Truffle Pig, Tessum proposed a couple of ideas,” she said, “and I said yes to one, but then COVID put everything on pause.” When travel became possible again, Tessum came back with a new possibility. He told Skyli he remembered that, six years previously, she’d said she wanted to see a narwhal. He thought he might be able to get her close to some of them,

“I said, yes, but I was afraid of it. He said, ‘No, no, they’re gentle,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not afraid of the animals. It’s that I can’t be with them where they’re being hunted. It would be too upsetting.’ And he understood. He said he knew a place.”

Narwhal swimming near Arctic Watch
In sync - two narwhal gliding gently above the surface (Credit: Nansen Weber)

The plan was that she would spend a week camped on an inlet near Arctic Watch where, for a short period every year, Arctic char gather before making a short migration into a lake. Inevitably, those animals who predate on the char—including narwhal—gather, too. Skyli would be brought to the campsite by helicopter, and she and a guide would use a boat to put themselves in proximity to the animals. “The way we were conceiving of this was as a pure proof-of-concept experiment,” she said. “The boat—being conscientious about not disturbing the animals and also about the laws that protect marine mammals—would drop us somewhere, and hopefully there would be an encounter.”

However, as often happens in the wilderness, uncontrollable circumstances intervened, and the plan had to be changed at the last minute, when Skyli was already in transit from her home in California to Yellowknife. “There was a question of whether it would still be worth it for me to go,” she said, “but I was on my way. I was going.” The new plan meant Skyli would only have one day to attempt to see narwhal, and no boat.

Scouting for wildlife
Nansen scouting for wildlife on the Northwest Passage - credit: Dan Achber

The good news was that her designated day dawned with beautiful weather. From the helicopter, she and Nansen could see groups of narwhal rolling into the inlet about a mile away (as well as a polar bear and belugas a mile and a half away). After they landed, they hurried into their drysuits. “There was a moment of—what do you want to do?” Skyli recounted. “And I thought, let’s get in the water. Let’s get in and swim out, and I think they’ll come. I just think they’ll come. We can’t catch them. We don't want to bother them. We can’t intercept them by swimming, but let’s just see if this happens. That’s what I want to do wherever I am. Just enter the theater and see what shows up. In Zimbabwe, I spent days and days sitting by a water hole just waiting to see who would come. And here the theater was this freezing ocean.”

Polar bear on the Northwest Passage near Arctic Watch
A polar bear spotted on Skyli's journey - credit: Nansen Weber

She and Nansen swam far out from shore through cold, turbid black water with no idea if anything would happen. “There were moments when you felt kind of stupid,” Skyli said. But they could hear the whales blowing, and the sounds started to come closer and closer. “So I took that to mean that they weren’t scared. They were curious.” Underwater, Skyli could hear a cacophony of narwhal communication: clicks, squeaks, and squawks that rattled in her abdomen. “You’re imagining that your body is being interrogated,” she said.

Then, through the murky water, a large, pale shape zipped by right below. A narwhal swimming on its back. And then another. As Nansen and Skyli exclaimed in amazement through their snorkels, the whales seemed to respond with sounds of their own. They started to pass more slowly. Exhalations shot up from the water all around. “They were completely in charge of the moment,” Skyli said. “There were many, many of them. And they hung out! Nansen and I kept popping up, cursing like crazy. He was the dearest person to share this with.”

After an hour, Skyli was getting cold but found it nearly impossible to pull herself away from the narwhal. “I kept getting pulled back in,” she said. “It felt to me like a dream sequence. It’s a fantasy to be with completely wild animals who are not afraid of you and also have a little bit of curiosity. The idea that we didn’t scare them away but that they came to us on their own terms—that’s the goal in life. That’s the sweet spot.”

To swim with narwhals is an extremely rare experience. Even people who spend their lives studying the whales might not ever interact with them in their element. “I’m not seeking these iconic species for a checkmark on my list,” Skyli said, “but there they were. The temperament of Tessum and Nansen to allow an experiment, to facilitate it and have it happen—who else would do that? They’re in a business of inviting people to the Arctic, but I’m convinced that there was joy for them to try this thing and to provide this experience. I credit them with making a dream come true. And this is a dream I will take to my grave, and it’s something I replay and relive all the time.”

Zodiac cruising on the Northwest Passage
A beautifully calm day - Skyli and her team cruising the sea ice on the Northwest Passage

Skyli's journey was a privately crafted adventure using our lodge Arctic Watch and the knowledge and skills of the team at Weber Arctic. Interested in learning more? See our private trips.

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