Studying whales on top of the world

Posted on
August 10, 2010

University of Rhode Island Public Information Officer Todd McLeish from the Department of Communications and Marketing is writing a book about narwals. He spent two weeks this summer in Greenland researching the animal. Here is his account of the trip

When the highlight of your summer vacation was eating raw whale blubber as icebergs floated by your tent, you know you’ve been on an unusual trip.

My destination this month was Qaanaaq, Greenland, the most northerly town on Earth, for an up-close encounter with narwhals, the Arctic whale with the unicorn tusk. When I decided to write a book about this unusual whale, I knew it would involve some challenging field trips, but little did I know that just getting to my research site would be an adventure in itself.

Traveling to Qaanaaq involved seven flights over three-plus days, beginning with a flight to Copenhagen, and then backtracking four time zones to arrive almost 2,000 miles directly north of where I started. Just one flight a week arrives and departs in the village of 600 residents, and during my visit I was the only one staying in the only hotel in town.

The scenery could not have been more stunning. Hundreds of icebergs glided through the bay outside my window – some the size of football fields and four-stories tall – calved from the dozen glaciers within the 40-mile long fjord to the east of town. Frequent thunder claps indicated the cracking and crumbling of the ice into smaller iceberg bits. The 160 houses in Qaanaaq are all painted bright red, blue, yellow or green, adding to the beauty of the scenery. Birds of a dozen varieties darted between the icebergs, and ringed and harp seals occasionally popped their heads up to survey their surroundings.

My objective for the week was to observe narwhals in the wild and learn about their importance in local culture by interviewing residents and joining a narwhal hunt. I have written about rare and endangered species for 20 years, and I’m passionate about wildlife conservation, so I was conflicted about participating in a narwhal hunt and knew it would be an emotionally challenging experience for me. But hunting is a way of life in Inuit society – it’s just about the only way to feed families and pay bills – and it is an important element to include if I hope my book will provide a comprehensive look at the natural history of the narwhal.

On our way to the hunting camp, a two-hour boat ride down the fjord, we were briefly surrounded by six or eight groups of narwhals traveling in the opposite direction. The 12-16 foot long whales are mottled gray, and their ivory spiraled tusks are almost never seen above the water line, though we were lucky enough to see a couple tusks as the 40 animals repeatedly surfaced to breathe.

At the hunting camp, we stood watch through the 24-hour daylight in 40-degree temperatures waiting for narwhals to swim by. My companions said that narwhal hunting is all about waiting – they may wait two or three days before a narwhal comes close enough to launch their homemade kayaks and then wait another hour or two on the water before approaching the whales and throwing their hand-carved harpoons.

During my stay at camp, when no one slept for 36 hours, the hunters launched two unsuccessful efforts before a third group of narwhals was intercepted by one hunter, whose harpoon struck its target. During a feverish 30 minutes when sealskin bladders blown up like buoys kept the whale afloat, the narwhal was successfully hauled to camp and later flensed. Every part of the whale except a few organs and its skull were carved to feed the community and the sled dogs they depend on during the nine coldest months of the year.

In celebration of a successful hunt, we all shared muktuk, the first inch of narwhal skin and blubber, which is eaten raw on special occasions. Later they offered me a narwhal steak for dinner, which had the taste and consistency of liver.

It was a tremendously successful trip that provided me with valuable insights into Inuit culture in one of the most remote regions of the world. The trip would not have been possible without a URI Career Enhancement Research Grant, for which I am most grateful to the Research Office, especially since I am the first non-faculty member to receive funding through the program.

This month I head off for another narwhal adventure, this time to Baffin Island in Arctic Canada, where I will join a team of researchers studying the structure, purpose and sensitivity of the narwhal’s tusk. My book should be in print sometime in late 2011 or early 2012.