In the Melting Arctic, a Reckoning to Save Indigenous Culture, Narwhals, and a Silent Sea

As a mining company seeks to ship millions of tons more of iron ore through caribou and narwhal habitat, good science requires the input of the Inuit.
Narwhals swim through Pond Inlet in Nunavut, Canada.

© Doc White/naturepl.com

To almost any visitor from the south, Pond Inlet feels far away. Here, 400 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Nunavut territory, the wind rips at the treeless tundra and the sun shines all night long during summer. There are but a few hilly, sandy dirt roads. When locals, nearly all of whom are Inuit, make their way to the astronomically expensive supermarket (where a can of Coke can cost nearly $5), they’re bundled in parkas, even in August. And the members of this community of around 1,600 carry workaday familiarity with a whale that seems, to most of the rest of the world, almost mythical: the narwhal, that sedan-sized, carnivorous creature with an eight-foot-long spiraling tusk packed with millions of nerve endings. In the Inuktitut language, narwhal, or qilalugaq, means “the one that points to the sky.”  

When I cross paths one afternoon with Mark Pewatualuk, an unemployed man living in a tent on a local hilltop, he speaks with casual precision about the narwhal’s undersea world. “There were lots of jellyfish a couple years ago,” he says, “so the shrimp disappeared and the narwhals got skinny.” Later, 11-year-old Jason Aglak rolls up to me on his BMX bike and describes a recent hunting trip: “We were out there on the ice, waiting all day, and my dad said, ‘Be quiet, and the narwhal will come.’”

Deep knowledge of the Arctic has a name in Pond Inlet. It’s called Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ, and this knowledge is rooted in an ancient culture defined by steady lifeways. For thousands of years, the Inuit have subsisted on nature, sustainably hunting caribou, seals, polar bears, and narwhals. When an Inuk kills a narwhal, he usually doesn’t salt it away in the fridge for his family. Instead, he shares it with neighbors and friends. On the Pond Inlet Facebook page, elders longing for community will post about a craving for muktuk, a raw slice of whale blubber and skin, usually from a narwhal.

These days, though, the narwhal—and, along with it, Inuit culture—is under siege. Climate change is melting the Arctic, making resources such as oil and iron more accessible. With less sea ice, large ships are rumbling in, and suddenly, the roughly 200,000 narwhals swimming in the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic are surrounded by clamor. Accustomed to living in one of the earth’s quietest seas, where they emit a series of clicks to communicate with each other and find prey, the cetaceans are struggling.

A map showing Baffinland’s proposed railway and shipping route from the Mary River Mine

In Pond Inlet, on the northern tip of Baffin Island, the principal threat to narwhals comes from Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation. The company started digging at the Mary River Mine, 100 miles to the southwest in 2014, and now trundles the raw ore by truck through Inuit caribou hunting grounds near the mine. The iron ore then travels by giant ship right past Pond Inlet, through Tasiujaq (once called Eclipse Sound) on its way to Europe, where it’s used to make steel. Between 2015 and 2019, Baffinland drove a sixfold increase in shipping on Tasiujaq. On the streets of Pond Inlet, locals complain bitterly of what the transport has wrought. “There’s iron ore dust everywhere on the leaves where we hunt caribou,” a hunter named James Simonee tells me, “and there’s just more shipping, more disturbances. There are a lot less narwhal. Two years ago, I caught one. But I haven’t got any since.”

Things could soon get worse. Since 2019, Baffinland has been seeking permission to double its annual iron output from 6 million to 12 million metric tonnes, and also to increase, from 82 to 168, the number of ships it can send through the sound each year. Canada’s Minister of Northern Affairs, Dan Vandal, is expected to decide whether or not to green-light this scheme by mid-November.

An aerial view of the Mary River Mine

Baffinland Media Centre

But Baffinland, which is largely owned by a Houston-based private equity firm, Energy & Minerals Group, is not the only intruder in Nunavut, an autonomous territory larger than Alaska. As the vast northlands rapidly change—as dogsleds become rarer and snow machines proliferate—biologists, anthropologists, and others are flooding in to make the Inuit one of the most researched people on earth. By 2011, one academic research paper had been published about the Inuit’s world for every three people living there. Meanwhile, a 2018 report by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a nonprofit representing 65,000 Inuit in Canada, depicted these papers as a “a tool of colonialism, with the earliest scientific forays…serving as precursors for the expansion of Canadian sovereignty and the dehumanization of Inuit.” Colonial approaches to research, the report added, are not a relic of history. They “remain commonplace.”

Bridging science and culture

I’m here in Pond Inlet to meet with an oceanographer intent on working harmoniously with the Inuit. Since 2016, Josh Jones, of the University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been recording Tasiujaq’s soundscape—the clicks and trills of the narwhals and the din of the ships that vibrate into the depths of the whales’ habitat. He builds the sound recorders himself and works with local hunter Alex Ootoovak to submerge them under the ice, and then maintain and monitor them.

Jones, 47, is tall and ruggedly handsome, with tousled blonde hair, a perpetual scruff, and a taste for worn Carhartts. He’s here on a two-week research trip and bunking in the Canadian government’s climate research station. The blue metal building looks like an IKEA store, standing out amid the more muted Inuit homes and their dusty yards full of building materials and ATV parts. He tells me that when a ship is within a kilometer of narwhals, “They’re not nursing their young. They’re not communicating with one another about where to find food, and they’re potentially not foraging.” Even when ships are 100 kilometers away, their sounds overlap in frequency with those of the narwhals so that the animals can’t hear one another.

Josh Jones, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, during a visit to Pond Inlet

Bill Donahue

Jones’s findings echo grim observations made by Inuit hunters. In 2021, at a public hearing that a governmental body called the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) held to consider Baffinland’s expansion plans in the region, elder Elijah Panipakoocho said, “Today, if you go seal hunting near Pond Inlet, you can't see any breathing holes, even during the winter…If we increase the number of ships traversing through our area, then it is more likely that there will no longer be marine mammals in our future.”

At the hearing, Baffinland’s vice president of sustainable development, Megan Lord-Hoyle, tried to placate Panipakoocho. “We are not proposing to ship during the winter months,” she said, “so we'll be avoiding some of those sensitive seal time periods.”

Jones was miffed as he sat listening to Lord-Hoyle, in part because the damage that Baffinland has caused thus far has occurred with shipping between July and October. “The response in general of Baffinland to the Inuit,” he says, “has been, ‘Don’t worry.’ And that’s not a scientific answer. The Inuit are saying, ‘Could this be a problem?’ What's needed is for scientists to ask the same question.”

Seal skins stretched out to dry in Pond Inlet

ulalume via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Jones got the idea for his study on Tasiujaq from the Inuit. When he first arrived in the Arctic to do research for his doctoral thesis in 2014, he aimed to ask a more academic question: What is quiet? What does the narwhal’s world sound like, absent ships? He planned to do his research on the most ship-sparse nook of the Canadian Arctic, Barrow Strait. But soon, Inuit hunters told him of the ship noise on Tasiujaq. So he placed his underwater microphones there, happy to be working in a place where, he says, “people really care about the ecosystem, and about every animal in it.”

Jones’s mantra is that scientists can learn from the Inuit, and repeatedly, he points me toward proof. For the past decade, he notes, researchers have been arguing that the population of polar bears living on the ice of Baffin Bay has been declining. Inuit hunters said that wasn't the case and that a sustainable hunt was viable. Finally, a 2020 study found that they were correct—polar bear populations on the bay are, in fact, stable.

Then there’s the story of Canadian ornithologist J. Dewey Soper who, between 1923 and 1931, traveled more than 30,000 miles throughout Baffin Island in search of the breeding grounds of the elusive “blue goose.” It was only after an Inuit hunter supplied him with a hand-drawn map, rendered without surveying equipment or measurements, that he was finally able to find them.

Jones has at times lived in Inuits’ homes for weeks at a stretch. Once, when Pond Inlet’s Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) asked him about the clatter emanating from the steel shackles and chains mooring the sound recorders to the ocean floor, he wondered with them about background noise possibly scuttling data. Then he crafted silent plastic replacement moorings.

On this visit, Jones is intent on dialoguing with locals about narwhals. He’s made a website that features underwater recordings of ships, and he plans to supplement the audio with explanatory text rendered in Inuktitut. First, though, Jones is trying to figure out what the Inuit would want from the site. For months, he had been telling me of his plans to set up a table in the co-op grocery store in order to ask passersby for feedback on the recordings. He’s also schemed to go on the local radio station, CBIK, and solicit public input. But neither the survey nor the radio appearance happens during my visit. The manager of the grocery store is sick, so Jones postpones the visit and settles for tacking up an invitation on the co-op bulletin board, hoping to draw folks to the research station to look at his underwater recorders. Only one family shows up during the six-hour open house.

Guidelines for engagement

I’m staying a couple miles outside town, camping out and getting around on my bicycle. I pedal through Pond Inlet on a knobby-tired Cannondale SuperX, a deluxe gravel bike that, back home, I use for racing. It stands out in a place where cheap department store bicycles are barged in once a year, only to decay in the salty air and the cold. When I wheel into town one morning, a clutch of small boys crowds around me to count the gears clustered on my back wheel. “One, two, three,” comes the tally, tinged with giddy disbelief. “Eleven! Eleven!”

In some places, 11 gears might gain you entrée. Here, though, it’s not so simple. A certain despair is at work. There are very few jobs in Pond Inlet outside the public sector, and the suicide rate for Nunavut is 100 per 100,000—10 times higher than the rest of Canada. Housing is tight. In Pond Inlet, some families live six to a room, and visitors from the south have an embarrassingly long history of coming in from their wealthier worlds with, as Jones puts it, “a lot of hubris and self-importance.”

Locals are particularly weary of incursions from the south now, as the last three years have been marked by strife and confusion over Baffinland.

Children playing near homes in Pond Inlet

Dreamstime

In 2019, as NIRB began holding public hearings to decide whether it would send Minister Vandal a nonbinding thumbs-up for mine expansion, Baffinland circulated two conflicting scenarios for the future. In a 2018 pitch to potential investors, the company described its plans to build a 70-mile railway for iron transport—eliminating the need for trucks—and ship up to 18 million tonnes of iron ore each year by 2021. Meanwhile, it told NIRB that, even with the new railway, it would ship only 12 million tonnes.

Historically, mining proposals have landed quick approval in Nunavut, so a group called Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) was worried the same would happen again. Charged with defending Indigenous treaty rights, NTI, in late 2019, successfully pressed to suspend NIRB’s final hearing for up to a year. “The people have to be consulted,” argued NTI president Aluki Kotierk. “Inuits have to be part of the process. It affects every part of Inuit lives.”

But Baffinland was restless. Earlier that year, the company—without a permit—amassed construction equipment along the path of its projected railway, including track spikes, railway ties, and a conveyor belt. It also enlisted construction workers to show up at the site, ready to build.

Then this past May came a shocking twist: NIRB decided to recommend against Baffinland’s expansion, meaning that Minister Vandal may well issue a decisive no to the project this fall. Baffinland began acting desperately. Later that month at a hearing in Pond Inlet, Paul Quassa, senior advisor to the Baffinland CEO, reportedly told Pond Inlet’s HTO that his company had “scrapped” its plans to increase its transport of iron through Tasiujaq. But Baffinland spokesman Peter Akman would later say that Quassa had simply engaged in “a back-and-forth of hypothetical ideas.” Then in August, the company sought to rattle Vandal into saying yes. It gave termination notices to 1,000 workers, more than 200 of them Inuit, telling them they’d be out of work if the minister failed to allow Baffinland to keep shipping six million tonnes a year.

A truck hauling ore from the Mary River Mine

Baffinland Media Centre

Jones insists that, amid such tumult, southern researchers need to be particularly respectful. “What the Inuit are asking visitors to do,” he says, “is be open and vulnerable, to take risks and be uncomfortable.” To do things that might seem humbling to a PhD, he means, like sitting at a table in a supermarket engaging passersby for 10 hours. “We can’t just be scientists,” Jones says. “We have to be human beings.”

When the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an international group, released guidelines for engagement last year, it likewise requested that researchers meet the Inuit humbly, on local terms: “We share information through storytelling, and the storyteller should not be interrupted before they are finished…We make decisions based on consensus, which requires extraordinary patience.”

Jones ends up having to leave Pond Inlet before the grocery store visit but sends a collaborating scientist instead. In talking to me, Jones concedes that he’s been fortunate to have a large enough research budget to allow him to spend eight years learning how to engage with the Inuit, and unfortunately, not all scientists are able to do so.

Changing so fast

For a journalist, eight years is a lifetime—I only have a week before I need to return home. After days of sounding me out on text, one young hunter consents to meet with me. “Where are you staying?” he writes.

“I’m camping in a tent,” I type.

“Amazing,” comes the reply. He meets me at my campsite, bringing a gift of cookies and tea. We sit there in the wind, beneath a clear blue sky, the snowcapped peaks of nearby Bylot Island looming above us. The hunter is twentysomething and lanky, and he insists on anonymity, telling me that it is not his voice that matters, but that of the elders. He tells me of how he went away to school in Ottawa in 2017—for eight months. “In the city, I felt like I would lose my history,” he says. “There were so many people, so much concrete. There was sun in the winter. I worried that I’d get in a financial crisis and not be able to leave.”

He decided that his future lay in Pond Inlet—in working with scientists, as he did recently, conducting a water quality study, and also in connecting with Inuit traditions. He learned to hunt, and he caught his first narwhal at age 20. The whale hunt involved 400 miles of travel and several snowmobile leaps over gaps in the melting spring ice. To make the kill, he took a small inflatable raft out to the floe edge, got separated from it, and then on foot, did what he calls a “super power jump” back into the boat before shooting and harpooning his prey.

A narwhal in the waters of Pond Inlet

© Todd Mintz/naturepl.com

It’s a bright, crazy tale, but still there’s a sadness to the moment, for both of us know that Nunavut is changing so fast. The hunter is trying to reckon with it. He picks his words carefully, each one laced with a certain lament. “I’ve been stressing over what Baffinland’s doing,” he says. “It doesn’t feel morally right for them to ask for a doubling of shipping. It’s not logical. I can barely eat, thinking about it. I try not to think about the statistics, but they’re in my head all the time.”

As I listen, there’s a different statistic looming in my head: The Mary River Mine is home to more than one billion tons of iron. It contains, in other words, about 30 times more iron than Baffinland has already shipped. And the company has plans to keep fighting for its expansion, even if Minister Vandal says no this fall.

“Isn’t it very simple logic to ask that they clean up the mess they’ve already made before they keep going?” the hunter asks. “I mean, if you spill coffee on the floor, you don’t just continue. Older generations have seen a lot of decline in wildlife. Will my hunting life be sustainable and healthy? Can science answer questions like that?”


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