Nature Writer Releases Book on Sea Otters

By Eric Butterman, September 12, 2018
Todd McLeish ’84 braves the wilderness to write about endangered wildlife.

Todd McLeish ’84 was camping in the Arctic when he woke to the sound of heavy breathing outside his tent.

“I wondered if it was a polar bear,” he recalled. “But it was our first narwhal, and it was right off the beach where we were camping. It’s just a spectacular animal that I honestly can’t get enough of.”

This life-changing experience came when McLeish was on an expedition for his third book, “Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.” The nature writer took a three-week expedition with Canadian biologists and camped on a waterway in the high Arctic. He was assigned to watch the nets for narwhals, which average around 3,500 pounds for males, with eight-foot-long tusks —  while standing guard against polar bears. The researchers would capture the narwhals, attach satellite tracking devices to them and release them. They caught six during the three-week research trip.

But they also had to ward off polar bears, to keep the narwhals and researchers safe. Teaming up with a head veterinarian from the Calgary Zoo, McLeish said, “For four hours at a time, we would stand with rifles by our side. When we saw a narwhal get entangled or if we saw a polar bear approaching, we would just yell out to the rest of the research team to alert them to come help disentangle the whale or to be come help scare away the polar bear.”

This story is one of many McLeish has about his adventures as a natural history writer. His first two books focused on endangered wildlife in New England. His fourth and most recent book, “Return of the Sea Otter,” took him from California to Alaska.

“I went scuba diving in a kelp forest where [otters] live to learn about their habitat. I joined biologists [who were] capturing otters from the coastal environment and bringing them into an aquarium where health studies could be done. [Then the otters would be] implanted with a tracking device to allow them to be monitored later,” he said. “I was able to meet native Alaskans who are sea otter hunters and learn about that process and the challenges that they face.”

He also observed sea otter autopsies.

“[Scientists are] trying to learn about the health of sea otters, but it’s not easy for someone like me to watch [an autopsy],” he said. “I saw one performed in Alaska and another one in California. They found one died from the same thing that gives humans strep throat, and the other was from a gunshot wound. It’s like mysteries being solved before your eyes.”

A speech communication major at IC, McLeish became interested in wildlife thanks to professor and bird expert John Confer. McLeish went on to get a graduate degree in communications studies from Emerson College.

“I knew I wasn’t meant to be a scientist,” he said. “So how do I become a part of this natural world for a living?”

McLeish found his way in by volunteering to help biologists with their research and writing about his experiences.

“I’m just your average nature person in many ways, but I understand I have to step out of my comfort zone for this,” he said. “You need to accept very cold conditions, rainy conditions, along with boats that are rocking around violently. You need to be ready for anything — and not complain.”

Even though it practically made his hair stand on end, that first narwhal sighting will likely always stand out as McLeish’s greatest nature experience. In a stirring land of gorgeous tundra, wildflowers, and giant icebergs — some the size of a city block — he is out where few people will ever go, meeting a creature few will ever see.