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.