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For most marine researchers, whale-watching is best done in a tropical paradise, or under the warm Mediterranean sun. But for Marianne Marcoux, a recent recipient of McGill's Eben Hopson Fellow in Arctic Studies, happiness is a pod of narwhals found off the frigid northern coast of Baffin Island.
Armed with an underwater microphone and a high-powered camera, Marcoux has spent four summers camped on the rocks near Pond Inlet, studying the social and vocal patterns of one of the most inaccessible, least understood animals on the planet.
Known as the "unicorn of the sea" for its three-metre-long tusk, the narwhal fascinates Marcoux precisely because it is so mysterious. “They do stuff we don’t understand,” she says, “and there’s still debate about the function of the tusk. We’re not even really sure how many there are.”
After completing her undergraduate work at McGill, Marcoux headed east to Dalhousie University for her MSc. But when the time came to begin her doctoral work, she came home to McGill. Nostalgia had less to do with her decision than the promise of a top-notch advisor in Dr. Murray M. Humphries, McGill’s NSERC Junior Northern Research Chair, and a fellowship, made possible by a donation from the North Slope Borough of Alaska.
But it’s the attitude of her fellow researchers that has really been rousing. “The environment in my lab,” she says, “that’s inspiring: people really passionate about what they’re doing, who want to know more and do crazy things – people who really love to do what they do.”