Chasing narwhal: Meet PJ

Last August, WWF’s Jacqueline Nunes joined a research expedition to Ellesmere Island to study narwhal, the “unicorns of the sea.” Read about her journey throughout Polar Bear Week. (Read the whole series here.)
You’ll learn a lot about PJ by watching this:

That water is right around 0 degrees Celsius. The air temperature? Much, much colder than that. But PJ, a 26-year-old Inuk living in Grise Fiord (originally from Iqaluit), had never done this before. So he orchestrated his own High Arctic polar dip. After he’d confirmed that everyone was watching (and filming—he wanted video evidence), PJ steered a zodiac out into the middle of the water, stripped down to his swim trunks and dove in.
Isn’t he awesome?
PJ was one of four Inuit guides who joined the narwhal-tagging team. When WWF works in the Arctic, we hire local people to guide and work alongside us—they’re attuned to the environment, which makes our work go more smoothly. This is also their home, and we want to be respectful of that. And we probably gain more from them than they gain from us. At least, I did.
PJ often kept me company when I was alone during “narwhal watch.” He told me stories about his family. (He has the sweetest 1-year-old son, named Lennon, in Resolute Bay, and he travelled back there after our expedition.) He told me about growing up in the Arctic and climbing the cliffs around Grise Fiord with his friends. When he got really bored, he showed off his fishing skills by catching an “ugly fish.”

PJ caught an “ugly fish,” actually called a sculpin. He wondered whether, if he kissed it, the fish would turn into a beautiful princess. (Much to his disappointment, the ugly fish stayed ugly.)

PJ told me stories of growing up around poverty and alcoholism—some really sad stories—but one thing was absolutely clear: He loves his Arctic home. He loves the cold. When I talked to him a few weeks ago, he said, “I think we’re at -37C. It’s dark but we’re starting to get the daylight back. It’s getting brighter every day now.”
His favourite Arctic species is the polar bear because of how they hunt. He told me, “It’s amazing how they catch seals when it’s almost impossible for us to catch one, even using a gun. Seals are so fast. Polar bears catch them with their bare paws, without using a tool.”
When he’s hunting, PJ’s favourite moment is, standing at the seal hole (in the darkness of winter) and hearing the bubbles of a seal about to surface. “That’s when the adrenaline kicks in,” he says. And no wonder—the longest he’s stood waiting for a seal, in the winter cold and darkness, is more than three hours. And the seal never surfaced.
His favourite food? When an Inuk catches a seal, the tradition is to cut it open right away and eat its liver, raw. I asked PJ what it tastes like (perhaps expecting him to say, “chicken”?), and he couldn’t describe it. He told me, “There’s nothing I can compare it to.”
And that’s exactly how I would describe seeing the Arctic with PJ as one of my guides—there’s nothing I can compare it to.
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