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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Expédition Narval: Une aventure dans l'Arctique

by Yves Ouellet

Guy Saint-Jean Éditeur
ISBN: 2 920340 64 6
Price: Can$19.95

This charming book is part expedition diary, part exploration guide. The author is an experienced journalist with a passion for adventure, particularly in the 'great north'. Here he is part of a 12-man expedition - well, one is a woman - whose quest is to make a documentary about the legendary unicorn of the sea, the narwhal. They set out from Pond Inlet in the Canadian Arctic in June.

The first part of the book takes the form of diary extracts relating only significant moments, leaving out the type of detailed account that can be so tedious. This also means that the reader gets to the team's first narwhal encounter without excessive preamble. This section is interspersed with text boxes giving thumbnail sketches of various aspects of life in the Arctic: fishing, seals, glaciers, flora and so on.

Initially the team was, justifiably, regarded with suspicion in case they were representatives of Greenpeace. Fortunately they overcame this obstacle without too much difficulty, for they needed the collaboration of the Inuit in locating the narwhal. Some team members had to overcome their personal feelings and attitudes towards hunting these fine creatures, and instead to have respect for traditional hunting techniques. This extended to sampling a meal of fresh pan-fried narwhal steak.

Yves Ouellet writes with simplicity and feeling about the magical moments they experienced, the anticipation and excitement and eventual euphoria when they first sighted their quarry. He gives a lyrical description of the animals' movements, the sounds they make, the clash of their spiral tusks, their grace. He is also sensitive to the people and to the land, becoming profoundly affected by the whole experience.

The next section comprises several pages of facts and figures about the narwhal. Apparently the earliest description dates back to the fifth century BC. The coveted spiral tusk was once valued at twenty times its weight in gold. The biological purpose of the tusk has been the subject of speculation for centuries and some are discussed here. Official statements on hunting quotas and survival expectations are questioned by the author.

There is a useful section on tourism in the Baffin Island area, though this may now need updating, and a list of equipment used by the expedition. Finally, six members of the team give a personal account of the impact the expedition had on them.

The resulting television documentary was transmitted in various countries and won two international film awards in 1990 and another in 1991.

This book is a delightful and informative read, although only available in French. My knowledge of the language is very rusty yet I didn't have to reach for the dictionary too often; I believe anyone with A-level French would have little difficulty reading this.

Review by S.G. Servian



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