Inuit Hunters Help Scientists Track Narwhals On a remote fjord in northwest Greenland, traditional Inuit hunting techniques are being used to stick tiny, high-tech satellite tracking devices onto narwhals — a kind of Arctic whale famous for its long, spiral unicorn horn.
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Inuit Hunters Help Scientists Track Narwhals

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Inuit Hunters Help Scientists Track Narwhals

Inuit Hunters Help Scientists Track Narwhals

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Let's pick up a story we began yesterday when we introduced you to marine biologist Kristin Laidre, who studies the narwhal, an arctic whale with a long horn, known as the unicorn of the sea. Today, we're going to look at Laidre's collaboration with people who probably know the narwhal best - residents of one of the northernmost towns in the world.

Together, they're trying to tag the narwhals with satellite transmitters to learn more about these elusive creatures. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kristin Laidre's home base is Seattle. There, she bikes to her job at the University of Washington.

Ms. KRISTIN LAIDRE (Marine Biologist): My normal life is, yeah, fairly normal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But she studies the narwhal. So, each summer she flies north -way north - over the Greenland icecap to Qaanaaq...

(Soundbite of barking)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...a small town of about 650 people. It has brightly-colored little houses looking out over a fjord filled with icebergs. Sled dogs are chained up everywhere. This is where she meets up with her research collaborators - five Inuit hunters - because if you're interested in the animals here, they're the experts.

Ms. LAIDRE: I couldn't find five biologists, whether they had, like, PhDs or 20 years of field experience, and bring them up here and have them be as good as five guys from that town right there. Like, no way could I - no way.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The men steer their motorboats out to the research camp. It's on a small rocky beach surrounded by glaciers. A couple of the hunter's kids are running around. There's a few tents, a plywood table, a jumble of supplies. There's also a wooden rack with huge narwhal ribs and intestines. They're from a recent hunt drying in the sun.

Mr. MADS OLE KRISTIANSEN (Inuit Hunter): You must try it. Maybe you don't like it, but try it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mads Ole Kristiansen cuts off some pieces for me. It tastes like beef jerky. Around here, hunting feeds both people and their sled dogs, especially in winter when it's hard to bring supplies in.

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: That's very important to us, to eating.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What do you think of Kristin's project?

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: It's very important to us and our future. It's very, very important to narwhals and this area.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thousands of narwhals spend their summers in Inglefield Bredning fjord. Kristin Laidre says Greenland's Institute of Natural Resources supports research here to try to figure out where these narwhals go in the cold, dark winter.

Ms. LAIDRE: And it's possible that these whales travel south, along the coast of Greenland, and are hunted at other sites.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or maybe the narwhals winter far from shore and people. If so, that would mean they're really only hunted one season a year.

Ms. LAIDRE: And that has implications for how biological advice is made for, you know, what their quota should be and how intensively they should harvest the population.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mads Ole Kristiansen says his community wants to hunt in a sustainable way.

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: Because we have respect to narwhals always coming north. If we don't respect that no more, no more coming to this area.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In Qaanaaq, hunters use traditional techniques and equipment. Mads Ole Kristiansen shows me his handmade kayak. When he paddles out to wait for narwhals, he carries a wooden harpoon with a detachable point. The sharp point is attached by a line to a kind of buoy or float. It's made from the skin of a seal filled with air. The seal's feet are still attached.

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: And I can find narwhal because I use this.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, this is on... You're looking for this?

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: Yes. After harpoon, I'm looking for this.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When a narwhal is hit, it bolts or dives underwater, but the harpoons point stays in, and this seal skin float reveals its location.

The hunter's skill in kayaking and harpooning has helped Kristin Laidre in a big way. Because normally, to tag narwhals with satellite transmitters, you catch them in nets. But in his fjord, the narwhals seem too clever for that. So, a few years ago, she was sitting around with some colleagues and hunters and they had a kind of brainstorm.

Ms. LAIDRE: These guys are, you know, experts at paddling out and getting close to whales, and throwing a harpoon and hitting it. So, I mean, if you're going to hit it with a harpoon, why not hit it with a transmitter?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The team modified a tiny satellite transmitter — the size of a matchbox — so it was like the point of a harpoon. She says the first person to stick one into a narwhal was a hunter named Kristian Eipe.

Ms. LAIDRE: I remember it was pretty foggy, and there were whales out in front of the camp, and he threw his harpoon and set the tag right in the right spot, and we all screamed and clapped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Since then, he and the other hunters have tagged more than a dozen narwhals. But these tiny transmitters only stay on a few weeks, not long enough to track narwhals in winter. Kristin Laidre and her collaborators want to modify the harpoon tags to get them to last longer.

In the meantime, though, they're still trying to catch narwhals in nets to attach sturdier transmitters.

Mr. KRISTIAN EIPE (Inuit Hunter): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kristian Eipe stands in a boat with a walkie-talkie conferring with the other hunters about some icebergs that are drifting too close.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The hunters wear jeans, plaid shirts, baseball caps. Kristin Laidre sits in the boat too not saying much, letting them decide what to do.

Ms. LAIDRE: This project wouldn't exist without the hunters and we wouldn't have had any success until this point and we won't have any success if they're not part of it.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Besides wrangling icebergs, a lot of time is spent just hanging out on the beach waiting for narwhals. A hunter named Niels Mirunge sits drinking a Pepsi and listening to the one Greenlandic radio station. He's carving a piece of narwhal tusk into a little sculpture - it's a tiny white walrus.

Doing the work sounds and smells like a dentist's office — because a narwhal's tusk is actually a large, spiral tooth.

(Soundbite of grinding)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the evenings, people watch movies on a laptop — everything from "Back to the Future" to an old Danish documentary on Inuit life, to a video that a tourist made of a dog sled trip with one of the hunters.

One day, Kristin Laidre plays recordings she made of narwhals using an underwater hydrophone.

(Soundbite of narwhals)

Ms. LAIDRE: They make this...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They sound like ice cracking.

(Soundbite of narwhals)

Ms. LAIDRE: That's a good one.

(Soundbite of narwhals)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I wonder if the narwhals out in the fjord are hearing all this racket. Kristin Laidre is doubtful, but Mads Ole Kristiansen says when he was a boy following the older hunters, they told him to be quiet, don't throw stones in the water.

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: And don't run in the beach; narwhal can hear.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, do you think, like, the narwhals are listening to us right now?

Mr. KRISTIANSEN: I believe it, I believe it, yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For whatever reason, as usual, the narwhals avoid the nets. The team packs up for the summer without catching one, but they did manage to tag two narwhals by using handmade kayaks and wooden harpoons.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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