KINGSTON—The Arctic regions conjure many tales of long, character-testing sojourns by explorers into blinding snow and hardship endured by the area’s faunal inhabitants. The romantic picture of witnessing a midnight sun is enough to capture any imagination. Todd McLeish, however, has journeyed to the Arctic and beyond for a different purpose: to find out all there is to know about the ancient Narwhal.
“I think I was nine when I first became enamored of the narwhal, the mysterious sea creature that most people, even today, aren’t sure is actually real,” reads the opening line to McLeish’s new book, "Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World."
“Their confusion arises from the whale’s connection to the mythical unicorn, whose horn, modeled after the narwhal’s tusk, was reputed to have healing properties,” he continues. “But I knew back then that narwhals were real.”
The book is a compendium of curiosity. He recounts his travels to the Arctic regions with his wife, Renay, traversing the blinding white lands and encountering wildlife, vistas and peoples far removed from the comfortable shores of Narragansett Bay.
Hiking from Pond Inlet, a village on Baffin Bay opposite Greenland, McLeish, currently a public information specialist at the University of Rhode Island, reveals his naïveté upon his first experiences in the freezing North.
“Straining for a view of the landscape ahead, I eventually saw a major waterway in the distance, Hudson Strait,” he recounts. “As we approached, I was dumbfounded to observe what looked like white boats scattered in the water below us.”
“What were all those boats doing in that virtually uninhabited area?” he continues, amazed. “As we got closer, my foolish mistake became clear, another indication that I had entered a realm that was totally unknown to me. The big white boats turned out to be icebergs.”
The author’s wide-eyed approach to learning everything about the lives of narwhals brings the reader into a richer experience. He is not solely focused on the ancient whale itself, but also the discovery of the whale’s mythology and history.
McLeish relates his first experience listening to the voices of narwhals underwater on one of his journeys to the Arctic, standing on ship with headphones and a group of excited fellow travelers.
“With headphones on and all-above water noise blocked out, I heard the riotous barnyard sounds made by the narwhals—an entertaining symphony of moos, grunts, creaky floorboards, pops, and clicks,” writes McLeish.
His experiences with the narwhal become more first hand and personal as the book progresses. One evening, as the midnight sun stood above the horizon, McLeish and his wife thought they heard a narwhal grunt nearby to their tent pitched on the shores of Koluktoo Bay. When they emerged, the couple witnessed a pack of surfacing narwhals, their long tusks piercing straight into the sky.
“Later, as I lay in my tent taking notes, we continued to be serenaded by the breathing of the surfacing narwhals—some hoarse, some like wind tunnels, others low and hooting and cooing or croaking,” he writes. “It took a long time for my pulse to slow down enough to fall asleep.”
The tales of conversations with leading experts on various scientific issues, from climate change to dentistry paints a real picture, and the people are just as interesting as the author’s personal journey.
McLeish contacted Dr. Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist of Assyrian descent, whose curiosity in the narwhal’s tusk, one of the most unusual dental formations among known animals, has brought him to research the jaw and bone structures of the narwhal.
Nweeia wondered in his research why the narwhal starts out with 12 functional teeth to help it chew and digest food, but then as it matures one tooth grows horizontally out of its mouth, turning into a tusk about eight or nine feet long.
“If you watch a killer whale pursue a narwhal, you realize that the tusk is just the worst thing you could possibly have on you,” says Nweeia in the book. “Why would you do this? Nature doesn’t allow you to develop something for sexual display that is a complete disadvantage to you.”
“There is nothing about it—when you look at it and when you watch one of these things swim—that says this helps the whale,” he continues.
The book continues to travel back to the earliest accounts of explorers meeting packs of narwhals, circling back to the modern day and our current understanding of the tusked whale’s behavior. Throughout, McLeish’s curiosity, and concern in a world of climate change, for the narwhal never wavers.
“How [the narwhal] can thrive in its icy world and find food in the dark depths despite the tremendous pressures will always amaze me,” writes McLeish in conclusion. “Yet despite their great skill and flexibility and physical adaptations that enable them to undertake their entire life cycle in conditions that few creatures can withstand, and despite what I’ve learned about their somewhat stable populations form the world’s experts, I still worry about them.”
"Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World," is a journey for readers who desire to learn so much about the world outside of their own, and once they feel they’ve learned enough, to venture out and learn a little more.
The book will be available at local stores on March 1. Pre-orders are available now through amazon.com.