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Narwhal at Milne Inlet: Charles Kinsey

All over the bay, little patches of water bubble, and then we see the mottled backs lumping through the water. Stitch the lumps together in your imagination and you’ve got some kind of giant, multi-humped sea-caterpillar inching through the surf.

And so, for the next hour and a half, in a calm, sheltered bay, with clear visibility right out to the mouth of the inlet, we watch narwhals.

And they, of course, watched us…

Narwhal: “12 o’clock, just along the beach, down from the dark overhang: HUGE pod of humans. Quick, everyone, stay together, and keep quiet. They’re pretty stupid, so if we move en masse, we might be able to get quite close. Let’s swim to this end first… Nope, it’s just a bunch of boring old boats here. Back we go. Ah! 2 o’clock, alpha male vocalising loudly. What a piercing sound! Doesn’t it carry a long away! Do you think it’s to do with courtship? Or perhaps it’s male-on-male competition? And again, another pass, follow me. Oi, you with the long tooth, will you get out of the way, I can’t see anything. (So selfish, these tuskers, with their expensive accessories.) Now if you look closely at the humans, you can see their markings — see those ones there with the grey and white colouring and mottled skin? Those are the really old ones. Some even look like corpses. And see those long black shiny things they’ve got attached to their faces? Those are probably secondary sexual characteristics, because the females seem to prefer males with really big ones. You do know that’s where the unicorn myth came from, don’t you? Well, they look happy, those humans. But I suppose we don’t know that they are happy. Just because they’re doing all that hugging and high-five-ing and kissing and air-punching, we mustn’t read too much into it, that would be terribly unscientific. Quick, over there, 1 o’clock, something’s happening. Human sinking in mud! Second human sinking in mud. Third. Fourth! 11 o’clock, welly stuck in mud. Welly off! Two wellies off. Three wellies off! Of course, they’re moulting! Now look, that one’s on all fours! What are they doing?! Oh, hang on a minute, one of them’s crying. In fact, there are quite a few with tears in their eyes. I think we’re causing them stress. Right guys, time to leave the humans in peace. Everyone here? Back out to sea now, you’ve had your fun. Lead the way, Tusker!”

Then, suddenly, that sound. A tone as clear and pure as the air it instantly owns. Narwhal song. I’ve just heard a narwhal song. A sudden gust of wind lifts me clean off my feet. Then again, I think I might just have leapt.

(From ship diary: Tamsin Constable/ Mark Carwardine Adventures, Baffin 2014)

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