Doug Brown has been an acoustic specialist in the Canadian military for 33 years. Normally, his gig involves sailing aboard navy frigates, but recently the brass sent him on a more unusual mission.
For nine days in late January, Brown visited the small northern hamlet of Igloolik in Nunavut. His assignment was to meet with the predominantly Inuit locals and gather first-hand reports of a mysterious "ping," allegedly emanating from the seafloor, which some believe may be to blame for a lack of wildlife in the area previously noticed by hunters. The ping was first reported by a sailboat that had recorded a sound with its onboard sonar.
The army initially planned to send two specialists, but the other couldn't make it due to conflicting duties, meaning Brown had to go alone. He'd never been to the Arctic before.
Though he's an acoustic specialist, Brown wasn't in Igloolik to conduct any readings or record sounds. That had already been done, with no results. In November, the military sent a CP-140 aircraft over the Fury and Hecla Strait—the location of the strange sound—to conduct an acoustic analysis. They found nothing.
For nine days, Brown stayed at the local Igloolik Inn and met with hunters and politicians, taking notes. He went out on the land with the Canadian Rangers (a reserve force that patrols the sparsely populated North), and dined on Arctic char.
Now that Brown has returned to Halifax from Igloolik, his findings will be put into an internal report for the military. When I called Brown to find out more about his experience, and what he discovered about the ping in Igloolik, he said it was "case closed," as far as the Canadian Army's concerned.
Motherboard: What were your impressions of Igloolik?
Doug Brown: I think I expected what we see on TV: a small community with not a lot of stuff. But they have quite a bit there. They have two hotels, grocery stores and department stores, and the RCMP detachment there. It's the same as being in any other small town, except it's a lot colder and gets darker earlier.
You roll into a town that you've never been to before, in a part of the world that you've never been to before. How did you start investigating?
So, the Rangers are based out of Igloolik. There were 12 members on our patrol, and they're from the town. They have contact with everyone in town—the mayor, the RCMP, the Hunters and Trappers Organization and all that—so I used them as a point of contact. They arranged everything we required.
Did you go to people's houses, or bars? Did you meet with organizations?
The first day we met with the Hunters and Trappers Organization, which is made up of all the hunters and fishermen there. They had a translator there because there were some older gentlemen who didn't speak English. I told them what I was there for, and listened to their issues and what they had heard.
I brought some examples of what sonar pings sound like and played it to them, and asked if they knew anyone who had heard the sound. They said no; nobody in their community or organization had heard any of the pinging sounds. Their biggest concern was the lack of migration of the narwhal and walrus up to the Fury and Hecla Strait.
I explained that it's possible that some of the environmental issues that have happened in the North in the past few years have led to the animals not migrating as far north as they used to. They're still in the area, just not where they used to be, historically.
At the end of it one of the older gentlemen said to the translator, "Thank you for coming and listening to us," and that's what I was there to do.
What did you do next?
I went to the local radio station and asked one of the Rangers to broadcast a message in their local dialect. It said that I was in town to gather information on the events of the spring and fall, and if anyone in the community had heard the noise, to contact the ranger so that they could make an appointment with me to interview them. We did not receive any replies to that request whatsoever.
We met with the mayor and council the following day. During that meeting, the mayor mentioned that someone from one of the two sailboats that this all relates back to had come ashore and went with someone in his community to shower and use their facilities. The mayor thought they could figure out who that person was so I could talk to them, but they never got back to me.
So, after all this, what did you conclude?
One of the things I told the council is that if there's any indications of anything like this again, they should let the Rangers or the RCMP know. But as far as we're concerned right now, it's a closed case.
Really? Well, if it's a closed case, what's your opinion on the existence of the ping?
Based on my assessment in that area, the current is so strong there that there would be no reasons to put any active sonar in there. The ambient and background noise in that vicinity would not be able to facilitate gathering any information on acoustic noise.
You said that none of the locals you spoke to said they'd heard the ping or knew of anyone who had. Do they believe in it?
Their real concern is why the mammals aren't going there anymore. Based on all the boats going through and the reports of a ping, that's what they assessed it as: that there's something out there causing noise and making the mammals not go out there. But currents and ice melt could cause mammals to not migrate where they did 50 years ago.
Did you end up talking to a single person who said they really believed in the ping or had heard it themselves?
What about the initial reports?
I met with the [Member of the Legislative Assembly] there and said that it was reported in the papers that many in the community had heard the noise, and his words to me were that that was a misunderstanding in the media. Nobody in his community had actually heard the ping.
As far as we're concerned, there's no other thing that we can do right now. There's no other information we can go on.
Any closing thoughts?
I'd like to thank the people of Igloolik for their hospitality while I was out there. My appreciation for the North has grown, and my understanding of how the North and the Rangers there work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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