Understanding the narwhal: Yummy Sound
Last summer, Vancouver-based writer and photographer Isabelle Groc travelled to Baffin Island in Nunavut, to track narwhals, one of the most elusive species in the world. She joined a two-week narwhal research expedition, and reports on her Arctic journey and close encounters with the "sea unicorn".
This article is the ninth in a 10-part series.
During our time in Tremblay Sound, some hunters came by to visit us. They had caught a female narwhal near our camp, and brought some muktuk, the narwhal’s vitamin-rich outer layer of skin and blubber, to share with us.
James Simonee, our Inuit captain, cut the muktuk in thin, small pieces to make it easier to chew on. It was my first time tasting muktuk, and while I was apprehensive at first, I was determined to fully appreciate the experience. Others in our group dipped the muktuk in soy sauce, but I decided to taste it as is. It felt crunchy in my mouth, but I couldn’t quite explain the taste, it was hardly definable at all. While I was still pondering over this culinary experience, my “roommate” Sy Ikkidluak had a big smile on her face as she voraciously ate the muktuk. “It’s so good,” she exclaimed. “Yummy!”
Food was so important to Sy that she actually renamed our camp site, Tremblay Sound, to “Yummy Sound” to account for the fact that nature provided food for all of us. A few narwhal carcasses along the coast even provided food for polar bears and Arctic foxes. And there were more opportunities for us to taste the local food of the Arctic at camp.
In between whale captures, team members set up a gill net to catch Arctic char, and we enjoyed amazing fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also happily shared the char with a few Arctic foxes which made their way to camp and became bolder every day. When we caught a narwhal, and the researchers took samples of skin and blubber, Sy was in charge of handling the samples and storing them in a safe place. Knowing how much she enjoyed the muktuk, team member Cortney Watt jokingly advised her not to eat the samples.
I realized that the Inuit’s connection to their country food was very strong, and yet I later learned that traditional foods have significantly declined in the last few decades in the North. According to the Inuit Health Survey, traditional food makes up only about 16 percent of the caloric intake of Inuit in Nunavut, down from over 23 percent in 1999.
There are several reasons for this trend that I discuss in an article I wrote for Planning magazine in February, but one of the issues is that climate change now impacts the ability of Inuit hunters to bring home species such as caribou or ringed seals that are part of the traditional Arctic diet, along with whales, fish, plants, and birds.
With warmer temperatures, the sea ice takes longer to form in the fall and breaks up earlier in the spring. Because of stronger winds and more unpredictable weather, it is becoming more dangerous for the Inuit to travel along the ice, which they use as a platform to access their hunting grounds.
James Ford, assistant professor at McGill University and head of the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group, has estimated that for the Iqaluit region, the hunting season has been reduced by nearly 45 days between 1982 and 2010 due to difficult wind conditions. He also notes a significant delay in ice freeze-up in the Iqaluit region of 1.7 days per year during the same period. Conversely, the open water period has extended in the summer, but local communities are not necessarily in a position to go out hunting and exploiting other species at that time of the year if they do not have the financial resources to buy boats and gasoline.
As we are nearing the end of our research expedition, it felt even more critical to collect as much scientific data as possible on a species like the narwhal, which is also very likely to be impacted by climate change.