Arctic Whales in a Melting World

Todd McLeish

  • Published: 2013. Paperback 2014
  • Subject Listing: Natural History; Nature and Environment
  • Bibliographic information: 216 pp., 20 illus, 1 map, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Among all the large whales on Earth, the most unusual and least studied is the narwhal, the northernmost whale on the planet and the one most threatened by global warming. Narwhals thrive in the fjords and inlets of northern Canada and Greenland. These elusive whales, whose long tusks were the stuff of medieval European myths and Inuit legends, are uniquely adapted to the Arctic ecosystem and are able to dive below thick sheets of ice to depths of up to 1,500 meters in search of their prey-halibut, cod, and squid.

Join Todd McLeish as he travels high above the Arctic circle to meet:

Teams of scientific researchers studying the narwhal's life cycle and the mysteries of its tusk

Inuit storytellers and hunters

Animals that share the narwhals' habitat: walruses, polar bears, bowhead and beluga whales, ivory gulls, and two kinds of seals

McLeish consults logbooks kept by whalers and explorers and interviews folklorists and historians to tease out the relationship between the real narwhal and the mythical unicorn. In Colorado, he visits climatologists studying changes in the seasonal cycles of the Arctic ice. From a history of the trade in narwhal tusks to descriptions of narwhals' vocalizations as heard through hydrophones, Narwhals reveals the beauty and thrill of the narwhal and its habitat, and the threat it faces from a rapidly changing world.

Watch the trailer:
Todd McLeish is the author of Golden Wings and Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England's Most Imperiled Wildlife and Basking with Humpbacks: Tracking Threatened Marine Life in New England Waters. He lives in Pascoag, Rhode Island.

"Narwhals is more than a 'whale of a tale' that lovers of the sea will enjoy reading. It also gives the reader a firsthand glimpse into the lives of Arctic dwellers as they struggle to survive in a changing world."
-Dr. Robert D. Ballard, marine explorer and oceanographer

"Todd McLeish takes us far in several dimensions-across space, through time, and into the interiors of the human mental landscape-to paint a vivid and eloquent portrait of an animal seldom seen, wrongly imagined, and too often mistreated. This is one of those rare books that lifts you up and takes you in."
-Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View From Lazy Point and A Natural Year in an Unnatural World


1. First Encounter
2. Whale Spotting
3. A Symphony of Moos
4. The Inside-Out Tooth
5. Mythology
6. Melting Ice
7. Greenland
8. Subsistence
9. Muktuk
10. To the East
11. Playing Catch
12. Gaining Ground
13. Looking Ahead


"As one of the first general-interest books for adults dedicated to the narwhal, it's an important first start. Full of science, story, and some amazing images, Narwhals introduces us to the 'sea unicorn's' world."
-Elizabeth Bradfield, Orion

"Anthropology, conservation, biology and local cultural and economic considerations blend effortlessly in this account. Ultimately the reader comes away with a profound awareness of the complications involved in maintaining in perpetuity a long lived species whose behavioral and ecological circumstances ironically leave it vulnerable to anthropogenic perturbations."
-Science Book and Film Review, American Association for the Advancement of Science, September 2013

"His expertise shines in this pithy, entertaining book, which concludes with a sober assessment of the future for this species, one of only three truly Arctic cetaceans, in a warming world."
-Kieran Mulvaney, BBC Wildlife

"Part of the book's strength lies in how McLeish captures the vivid sensory world of the Arctic."
-Doug Norris, IndependentRI, march 2013

"Todd McLeish goes deep into the narwhal- from its mythology to its biology."
-Beth Daley, The Green Blog, March 2013

"McLeish provides a broad view of the narwhal's history and legend, remaining awestruck and deeply concerned for a species that remains a miraculous creation."
-Colleen Mondor, Booklist

"[The book] is a personal account of the latest scientific findings on narwhals and on ways the Arctic environment is changing. . . . [it] feels like a privilege to see one's favorite study animal portrayed as it has been here in a well-written popular book for a broad audience."
-M. P. Heide-J┐rgensen, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Based on interviews with researchers and his own research, McLeish weaves a compelling story about narwhals and the impact of the changing climate on their survival. . . . This book is a great read for general audiences and students as well as scientists interested in narwhals."

"Narwhals is reminiscent of many geographers' first field experiences: journeys of discovery, both about the subject matter and about ourselves. . . . A lighter, more feel-good book about the joy, wonder, and Type II fun of a true research-based adventure."
-Russell Fielding, AAG Review of Books