The Inuit have looked forward to this moment all winter. Each man waiting on the ice hopes to land a whale with a tusk that could sell for more than a thousand dollars, a windfall in a remote region where jobs are scarce and the cost of living high. The hunters also look forward to fresh muktuk, the top layer of blubber and skin, which is prized as a traditional delicacy.
But like most of life in the Arctic, hunting narwhals requires patience. The open water is wide here, and the whales stay beyond reach. So we light camp stoves, brew tea, and share stories and laughter. In the endless daylight of spring, our vigil continues around the clock. Cries of Tuugaalik! Tuugaalik!—Narwhal! Narwhal!—ring out as big males lift their tusks skyward. Then comes word over the radio that narwhals have been spotted moving up a newly formed lead 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the west. We quickly relocate and see that the crack in the ice is narrow. It’s a can’t-miss situation. Yet even at this close range, making a clean kill as the whales surface for air will be difficult.
The gunfire begins in the afternoon and goes on all through the twilit night. Over the span of 12 hours 109 rifle shots ring out, but something is wrong: In the morning only nine narwhals lie dead on the ice. Surely more were hit, I think, and begin asking each hunter how he fared.
“I hit two, but they didn’t die.”
“I sank seven and landed none.”
This was not the first time I had heard reports of many narwhals being shot but few landed. Just weeks earlier, a man I know to be a skillful hunter confided that he had killed 14 narwhals the previous year but managed to land only one.
For even the best hunters, killing and retrieving a narwhal at the ice edge is a formidable challenge, one that requires near-perfect aim and timing. The whale must be shot in the spine or brain (an organ the size of a cantaloupe) the instant it fills its lungs with air. Kill it at the wrong moment, and it will sink. Wound it, and it will swim away and possibly die later—though many narwhals apparently survive. I’ve seen more than a few bearing multiple bullet wounds.
Even whales killed with a perfect shot often float beyond reach of the hunter’s hook and sink. So much ivory rests on the seafloor, said one hunter, that a salvager could make a fortune.