An entrapment of animals, especially narwhals or beluga whales, in pack ice or sometimes in a lead at the mouth of bays or fjords is called a sassat, a word derived from the Greenlandic suagssat. When the wind shifts direction in extremely cold weather, closing off most of a lead where whales have been feeding, the animals’ increasingly frantic movements can be all that keeps a shrinking patch of water open. Animals caught in such a development find themselves unable, in a single breath, to swim far enough beneath the ice to reach another lead or the open sea. For Iñupiaq Eskimo hunters, who call the event imayguaraat, sassats are blessings. They travel across the sea ice to harvest meat where the whales, crowded tightly together, are lunging across each other’s bodies to get a breath, before being forced under by others desperate for air. Sassats are audible events. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the noise: “[The whales’] bellowing and gurgling, their bovinelike moans and the explosive screech of their breathing, can sometimes be heard at great distances.” Danish scientist Christian Vibe once described an attempt by trapped whales to grab their last bit of air in a sassat: “With a hollow whistling sound they inhaled the air as if sucking it through long iron tubes.” And anthropologist Richard Nelson recounts a sassat near Wainwright, Alaska, when hunters were “guided to it by the frantic hissing and blowing of hundreds of [beluga] whales at holes along the edge of a closing lead.” This sassat eventually opened, freeing the whales; others don’t. During the brutal winter of 1914–15, over a thousand narwhals died at Disko Bay, Greenland. For the Inuit, the whales’ misfortune was an unexpected source of life that very cold Arctic winter.

Eva Saulitis