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Gazprom Neft sets off in pursuit of the “sea unicorn”

10 June 2021 saw Gazprom Neft send off its second research expedition — on studying that rare marine mammal of the Russian Arctic, the Narwal or “sea unicorn” — from Archangelsk. Bound for the Franz Josef Land archipelago, the Narwahl-project expedition will be managed from the Mikhail Simonov, a vessel equipped with a helicopter and drones. Thanks to new technologies, research into the narwhal has reached a whole new level — of a kind never before seen in Russia.

The narwhal is a symbol of the Arctic’s fragility, and an indicator of the Arctic’s ecological condition. The narwhal is more sensitive to its ecological environment than other cetaceans (marine mammals), which means monitoring the narwhal makes it possible to track the condition of the Arctic ecosystem. A team of scientists is studying the population of these “sea unicorns”, and those of their neighbours — white whales and bowhead whales. The research programme being implemented by Gazprom Neft in partnership with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ecology and Evolution involves searching for and monitoring groups of these animals, and taking biopsies from them. This will make it possible to adjust assessments of narwhal population status, and start work on a programme to protect the species and its habitat.

The scientific aspect of this project goes hand-in-hand with education and popularisation. Extensive media coverage will engage a wide audience in studying the narwhal, and the Russian Arctic, as a whole. The expedition — and the further development of the project — can be followed on, and

“The Arctic is a unique region in terms of its climate and its natural environment. It’s also a strategic region for our company. This is both a motivation, and a particular responsibility. As a leader in implementing technologically advanced production projects in the Arctic, Gazprom Neft has been happy to take on additional responsibilities in preserving the region’s biodiversity. The company’s innovative developments — in unmanned transportation, an AI-driven video analytics system, and so on — are helping take research and conservation of the narwhal to a whole new level. The results of the first research expedition under the Narwhal Project proved extremely successful, for us all. We’re hopeful that, during this second expedition, we’ll be able to carry out the research planned and make a documentary about this unique Arctic animal.”
Alexander Dybal
Alexander Dybal member of the Management Board, Gazprom Neft, and the project’s initiator and curator
“We will be undertaking aerial- and ship-based observations to assess the distribution, and the social structure, of narwhal populations, as well as beluga whales and other marine mammals. We will be collecting genetic material to study the structure of the population, and taking photos and videos to clarify this in terms of age and sex. A scientific programme for preserving the narwhal and their habitats with then be developed on the basis of the data from these two expeditions. Once tested, this will then be presented to the “powers that be” in the Arctic, for adoption as the international standard.
Olga Shpak Expedition Leader and Senior Researcher, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Scientists
Notes for editors

The narwhal (Latin — “Monodon Monoceros”, the “sea unicorn”) — is a rare cetacean species, with a distinctive tusk. The narwhal lives at high latitudes — in the Arctic Ocean, and the North Atlantic, mainly around Franz Josef Land, the waters around the North Island of Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen, the Canadian Archipelago, and the shores of Greenland. An adult narwhal can reach up to 3.8–4.5 metres in length. Males can weigh up to two to three tonnes, and females about 900 kilogrammes. The narwhal is listed in the Russian Red Book (a directory of Russia’s endangered species).

Organised by Gazprom Neft, the Narwhal Project is the first comprehensive research project on studying, preserving and popularising the legendary “sea unicorn” of the Arctic. The objective of the project is to study the narwhal population in Russian waters, and put in place a programme to protect the species and its habitat. A communication programme will form an important part of this programme, in addition to its scientific and research content. The Narwhal Project has brought together research scientists, science communicators and popularisers, businesses, government agencies, and community activists. The project was initiated in 2019, with its first research expedition (organised by Gazprom Neft together with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ecology and Evolution) delivering a number of major scientific insights. The Narwhal Project is being implemented as part of Gazprom Neft’s “Home Towns” corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. The project’s second expedition is being undertaken with the support of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of the Russian Federation and the Northern Department of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring.

Gazprom Neft’s “Home Towns” CSR programme has been consistently improving living standards in those locations in with the company operates since 2012, supporting initiatives by local people as well as developing the company’s own projects. The programme is mainly focussed on developing social infrastructure in the regions, and on supporting education, science, and environmental projects.