Monday, July 11, 2011

Life in a Narwhal Hunting Camp

It was a year ago this week that I departed on my greatest adventure yet, traveling on seven flights over three-and-a-half days to reach the northernmost municipality on the planet, Qaanaaq, Greenland.  It was there that I joined up with Mads Ole Kristiansen to observe a subsistence hunt for narwhals.  It wasn’t what I would call fun, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
The hunters watch for approaching narwhals
            When we arrived at the nearby hunting camp of Siunnertalik, Mads Ole said that narwhal hunting is mostly about waiting: sit high on an overlook in the cold and wind and stare through binoculars while waiting for a narwhal to surface close enough to approach in your handmade kayak.  That could take hours or days, depending on the whim of the narwhals.  When a narwhal is sighted, the hunters rush to launch their kayaks, but even then they spend a long time sitting quietly on the water waiting for the animals to resurface, then reposition themselves and wait again for them to come closer.  And when the whales don’t come close enough, the hunters return to camp where the waiting and watching resumes.  For the next 15 hours, we waited and watched.  My hands and feet were numb within the first 15 minutes.
           It was quickly apparent that time has little meaning there.  By 3 a.m., five hours after I would normally have been asleep, the camp was still lively, food was being shared, and hot tea was still being offered.  Two more families of hunters had arrived, their two children were still awake and exploring the nooks and crannies around camp, and the men were sitting on a driftwood log talking quietly and watching for narwhals.  Their wives were watching from high above at the observation point. 
Mads Ole strikes the narwhal with his harpoon.
Mads Ole and I were warming up in the tent when someone called out from the lookout at 4:02 a.m. that narwhals were approaching. Before I even understood what was happening, Mads Ole dashed out of the tent, ran up to the observation point, and quickly verified the location of the whales.  Then he jumped into his kayak and took off, followed shortly by the other two hunters.  When I finally climbed to the lookout and raised my binoculars, I could see dozens of narwhals in all directions.  From my vantage point it appeared that the hunters were surrounded by narwhals, some of which looked as if they were very close to the kayaks, yet the hunters sat still, not paddling closer, and never hoisting their harpoons. It was exciting to watch, but probably quite frustrating for the patient hunters.  At 5:07 the hunters returned to camp, but as they were climbing out of their kayaks, another call came out that more narwhals were approaching quite close to camp.  Only Mads Ole decided to try again.
Within minutes he was in perfect position to intercept at least a dozen narwhals swimming in a line towards him.  He waited, unmoving, then took a couple paddle strokes, then waited some more.  The narwhals came closer, and several swam right by him, appearing to me like they were just arms’ length away, and still he didn’t move.  Then three narwhals surfaced at once just behind him, and as they went under, he paddled alongside them and lifted his harpoon, but they resurfaced too far away, so he lowered it again.  I thought he had missed his best opportunity, but two whales trailed the group, surfaced, dived, and when they surfaced again, one was right beside Mads Ole.  He quickly raised his harpoon, held it in the air for what I thought was far too long, and threw it.  The harpoon struck the narwhal in the flank, and the animal responded with a sharp slap of its tail and dived, taking with it the sealskin float to keep it from sinking. 
A celebratory cheer rang out from the hunters and their families, and surprisingly, from me as well. As difficult as it was for me to watch, I was pleased for the hunters that they were successful in providing food for their table for the coming months. And I was pleased to be offered a piece of muktuk – raw skin and blubber from the freshly killed whale – to help them celebrate the hunt. But I was equally pleased that their success meant that I could return South again from the coldest summer of my life.


  1. Finding pleasure in slaughtering sentient self aware mammals is nothing to be proud of. It is time we reach out to tribes and move them out of the past into the present. The Solomon Islands is one such example. Thanks to Ric O'Barry the indigenous islanders are finding new ways to live. They are finding respect for the dolphins. They are understanding and embracing the sentient status. Today we do have science, we know so much more. We know that dolphins and whales are self aware complex individuals who have families and live in complex groups called pods. For more information on cetacean facts please feel free to contact me. Cruel and outdated traditions belong in only one place, the past.

  2. I agree with Kirsten. It is a hard thing for me to watch the killing of any animal. I would not know what the thrill of a hunt is. I can only emphasize with the animal who is the victim. The narwhal, cousin to the whale, is a highly intellectual mammal, who deserves the respect of humans. If the people must eat to live, I understand this, and I would only hope it would not be another intellectual being such as the narwhal, whales or dolphins that they target for their food... Thus said, I do not feel the need to watch them kill to survive and do not understand your need to do so.

  3. I understand your comments entirely and I mostly agree. Observing the narwhal hunt was one of the most emotionally challenging things I've ever done. But I'm writing a book about narwhals, and that was one aspect that I had to observe to tell the complete narwhal story. As much as I disagree with hunting of any kind (I'm mortified by the concept of hunting as sport), the Inuit in the high Arctic have few alternatives to feed their families. They can't grow crops, farm animals cannot survive the weather, and so they are left with hunting seals, polar bears and whales. I wish it weren't so.

  4. Todd, interesting post! What is the state of narwhal populations in Greenland? Do they have a quota? Hunting for sport/trophy is one thing, but hunting for food, harvesting only what is needed, and not taking the animal for granted, is quite another.

  5. It's hard to separate the West Greenland and Canadian populations, but the latest estimate is about 80,000 narwhals in the region. There are only about 5 or 6 communities that hunt narwhals in Greenland, and the total quota for all of them is about 350. The village I spent time in had a quota of 85. There are about 25 Canadian communities that hunt narwhals, and their combined quotas are a couple thousand, but only a few of those communities reach their quota regularly.

  6. You really shouldn't be so judgemental about a culture you don't understand. These people hunt and kill narwhale because it is how they were taught to feed themselves and their families. At least the whales live free in the ocean, not in unnatural human made condiotions, and all of the animal is put to use. You assume you know how a whale feels, in truth you don't. Try to look beyond your own every day life and ssumptions before you judge a whole community, the inuits.

  7. Killing them is just plain mean.