Rhody Postcards: Todd McLeish

URI Public Information Officer Todd McLeish from the Department of Communications and Marketing spent time this summer traveling to Greenland and then to Arctic Canada to study Narwhals for a new book he is writing. McLeish is the author of two other books, Golden Wings and Hairy Toes: Encounters With New England’s Most Imperiled Wildlife and Basking With Humpbacks: Tracking Threatened Marine Life in New England Waters.

Greetings from the top of the world!

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 was Qaanaaq, Greenland, the most northerly town on Earth, for an upclose encounter with narwhals, the Arctic whale with the unicorn tusk. 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. The scenery could not have been more stunning. Hundreds of icebergs glided through the bay outside my window. 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 my book is to provide a comprehensive look at the natural history of the narwhal.

After days of waiting and two unsuccessful efforts, a third group of narwhals was intercepted by one hunter, whose harpoon struck its target. The narwhal was hauled back to camp and flensed. Almost every part of the whale was carved to feed the community and the sled dogs they depend on during the coldest nine months of the year.

In celebration of the 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.

The trip provided me with invaluable 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.

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A month after his travels to Greenland, Todd camped for two weeks with a team of narwhal researchers in Arctic Canada, where they watched a parade of 200 narwhals swim by them every six to eight hours. The scientists captured narwhals in large nets, attached satellite tracking devices to their backs, and are now monitoring their feeding behaviors and migration to the edge of the pack ice where the animals will spend the winter.