The air is calm this Arctic morning as Zacharias Kunuk prepares for a long day. His morning routine does nothing to quell his nerves—today he’s going on his first walrus hunt.
It’s 1980, late July—the month walrus hunters climb into motorized freighter canoes and leave Igloolik, a small Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada.
Every summer since he was a boy, Kunuk has watched the hunters return, weary but triumphant with walrus meat. He’s always wondered how far these men travel to reach the floating rafts of ice where walruses rest during the summer. And he’s pondered how just a few men can possibly kill a creature that might weigh more than 20 men and then wrestle it into a canoe. This is the day Kunuk will get answers.
He also plans to capture it all on camera. A young filmmaker in his mid-20s, Kunuk has a small budget to finance the hunt, a cultural practice so vital to his community’s identity that he wants to record it for future generations.
The temperature on an Arctic summer day rarely exceeds 10°C, with much cooler air out by the sea ice, so the hunters dress for the climate: skin boots, mittens, and knee-length parkas with fur-lined hoods. Kunuk joins an experienced elder and the man’s brother as they load their boat with harpoons, guns, knives, tea, and bannock (a fry bread). Nearby, other men ready their own freighter canoes.
Then they push off—a tiny flotilla in a great big sea—on their way to hunt an enormous animal. As they travel, the hunters explain how to read the angle of the sun, the direction of the currents, and the subtle movements of the seaweed—a navigational system so baffling to young Kunuk that he silently questions how they will ever find their way home.
After several hours spent listening to the engine’s mechanical chug, Kunuk hears a chorus of mumbling and chattering, grunts and growls, a sign that they are close to the walruses. (That sound will later remind him of the cacophony in a busy bar). They shut down the motors and drift toward the ice. As the walruses lift their hefty heads, the hunters raise their rifles and aim.
Throughout the Arctic, the traditional walrus hunt happens today much like it has for thousands of years—in teams armed with knowledge about walrus behavior accumulated over generations. But times are changing, and it’s not just that the hunters now have global positioning systems, speedboats, and cell phones.
A rapidly changing environment is also altering walrus behavior in ways scientists are struggling to understand. As Arctic sea ice melts at a worrisome rate—in 2015 reaching the smallest maximum extent ever recorded—walruses are behaving strangely in parts of their range. That includes gathering in unusually large numbers on land.
Normally, females and calves prefer to haul out on sea ice instead of on land with the males. But as the ice disappears, the beaches are filling up. In September 2014, 35,000 Pacific walruses piled together near the village of Point Lay, Alaska, making international headlines for a record-setting heap of jostling tusks and whiskers on American soil. In October 2010, 120,000 walruses—perhaps half the world’s population—crowded onto one Russian haul-out site.
For their part, scientists are racing to gather information about walruses, including attempts to get the first accurate head count amidst increased shipping traffic, proposed oil drilling, and other disturbances in key walrus habitat. A 2017 deadline for a decision by the United States government on whether to list walruses under the Endangered Species Act is fueling a new sense of urgency.
A major goal is to explain changing walrus behaviors and understand what, if any, protections they might require. But there is another unanswered question that is just as critical, if less quantifiable: What do new walrus behaviors mean for indigenous people who have long depended on the animals?
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