The return of the narwhal, the tusked whale of northern polar seas, is a long-anticipated event in the Canadian Arctic. After months of darkness and temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, winter gives way to spring, and the sea ice covering Lancaster Sound begins to splinter. Open stretches of water, called leads, become travel lanes for the small whales as they follow the retreating sea ice toward their ancestral summering grounds around Baffin Island. In remote Inuit communities such as Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, news of the narwhals’ arrival stirs hunters to reach for their rifles and head for the ice edge.
Like the Inuit, I too am eagerly awaiting the return of the tusked whales. For most of June, my guide and I have camped on the frozen surface of Admiralty Inlet, waiting out blizzards and moving our tents to escape the disintegrating sea ice. When finally we hear the squeaks, squeals, and blows of these vocal whales, we climb a large block of ice and cheer their arrival.
At first the narwhals parade past in pods of eight or ten, then in grand processions of hundreds. As news of their return spreads over the local field radio, Inuit hunters, many of them good friends I’ve known for years, begin arriving on snowmobiles carrying camping gear and high-powered rifles. Taking up positions along the ice edge, they watch and wait for narwhals to surface near enough to shoot with a rifle and retrieve with a grappling hook thrown by hand.