Late one quiet November night in the village of Niaqornat, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast, the sled dogs began to howl. No one knew for sure, but some of the villagers suspected the dogs had heard the exhalations of narwhals. The whales with the spiral unicorn tusks usually swim into Uummannaq Fjord this time of year as they migrate south. The next morning most of the community’s men set out in small boats to try to bag a narwhal, as the Inuit in Greenland have done for centuries—though in this area nowadays they throw harpoons from motorboats moving at 30 knots and finish off their quarry with high-powered rifles.
That afternoon, beneath a lowering gray sky, the hunters return, dragging their boats ashore. A few more of Niaqornat’s 50 residents emerge from brightly painted wooden houses and gather on the stony beach, eager to see what the boats might hold. Among them is Ilannguaq Egede, the 41-year-old manager of the village power plant. He came here nine years ago from south Greenland, where sheep farmers far outnumber whalers, to be with a Niaqornat woman he met on an Internet dating site. “I haven’t caught my first narwhal yet,” he says. “I’m waiting for this season.”
Maybe the narwhals eluded their pursuers. Or maybe they were never there and are still lingering in their summer grounds up north, not yet driven south by spreading sea ice. Whatever the reason, Niaqornat’s hunters have returned with smaller prey: ringed seals, a dietary staple. Within minutes the animals have been skinned, the meat cut and carried away in plastic bags. Bite-size slices of raw liver have been handed to delighted children. Aside from some bloodstained rocks and a few severed flippers, all traces of the seals have vanished.