In Search of the Mysterious Narwhal

Ballerina turned biologist Kristin Laidre gives her all to study the elusive, deep-diving, ice-loving whale known as the “unicorn of the sea”

Where do they go? How many are there? What's with the tusk? Narwhals (in the Arctic Ocean) have inspired myth and wonder but are still little known to science. (Flip Nicklin / Minden Pictures)
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In the darkness they can tell the difference between a beluga and a narwhal by the sound of their breathing. And if the hunters can't hear anything, they search them out by smell. "They smell like blubber," a young man told me.

During the Middle Ages, and even earlier, narwhal tusk was sold in Europe and the Far East as unicorn horn. Physicians believed that powdered unicorn horn could cure ills from plague to rabies and even raise the dead. It seems also to have been marketed as a precursor to Viagra, and it rivaled snake's tongue and griffin's claw as a detector of poison. Since poisonings were all the rage in medieval times, "unicorn horn" became one of the most coveted substances in Europe, worth ten times its weight in gold. French monarchs dined with narwhal-tooth utensils; Martin Luther was fed powdered tusk as medicine before he died. The ivory spiral was used to make the scepter of the Hapsburgs, Ivan the Terrible's staff, the sword of Charles the Bold.

Historians have not definitively identified where the ancient tusks originated, though one theory is that the narwhals were harvested in the Siberian Arctic (where, for unknown reasons, they no longer live). But in the late 900s the Vikings happened upon Greenland, swarming with narwhals, their teeth more precious than polar bear pelts and the live falcons they could hawk to Arabian princes. Norse longboats rowed north in pursuit of the toothed whales, braving summer storms to trade with the Skraelings, as the Vikings called the Inuit, whom they despised.

It was Laidre's intellectual ancestors, the Enlightenment scientists, who ruined the racket. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Wurm refuted the unicorn myth, showing that the prized horn material came from narwhals, and others followed suit. In 1746, faced with mounting evidence, British physicians abruptly stopped prescribing the horn as a wonder drug (though the Apothecaries' Society of London had already incorporated unicorns into its coat of arms). Today, the tusks fetch more humble prices—about $1,700 a foot at a 2007 auction in Beverly Hills. (It has been illegal to import narwhal tusk into the United States since the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, but material known to have entered the nation earlier can be bought and sold.)

To the Inuit, the whale and its horn are hardly luxury goods. Greenlanders traditionally used every part of the animal, burning its blubber in lamps, using the back sinews to sew boots and clothes and the skin for dog sled traces. The tusks were tools of survival in a treeless landscape, used as sled runners, tent poles and harpoons. The tusks were also bleached and sold whole or carved into figurines (and, yes, Mr. Melville, letter openers). Even today, when iPods are sold at the Niaqornat village store, narwhals remain a vital source of food. Narwhal meat feeds dogs and fills freezers for the winter, a last nutritional opportunity before total darkness closes over the town like a fist. Mattak, the layer of skin and blubber that is eaten raw and rumored to taste like hazelnuts, is an Inuit delicacy.

When an animal is killed, word spreads by radio, and the whole town rushes down to the beach, shouting the hunter's name. After the butchering, families share the carcass, part of a traditional gifting system now almost unknown outside the settlements. "We make a living only because the whales come," Karl-Kristian Kruse, a young hunter, told me. "If narwhals didn't come, there would be nothing here."

The new whale quotas will probably make life more difficult in Niaqornat: before 2004, there were no limits on the number of narwhals hunters could catch, but in 2008 the whole village was allotted only six. "The scientists want to know how many whales there are," Anthon Moller, a 25-year-old hunter, said bitterly. "Well, there are a lot, more than ever before. With quotas it's hard to live."

When Laidre and Heide-Jorgensen first showed up to ask for help catching narwhals in nets and then—of all preposterous notions—letting them go, some men thought it was folly, even though the scientists would pay almost as handsomely as the Vikings. Now, two years later, having lost one whale after netting it and successfully tagging only one other, the hunters still weren't entirely persuaded. And yet, they were curious. They, too, wanted to know where the whales went.

There are no doorbells in Niaqornat, and no knocking. When the town's dozen or so hunters came over to the scientists' house, they just walked in, stomping their big boots politely, to give fair warning as much as to kick off the snow.

They were small, spare men, smelling of fish and wet flannel, with wind-burned skin, flared nostrils and dark eyes. Laidre offered coffee, along with a cake she'd baked that afternoon. They munched watchfully, some of them humming to themselves, while Heide-Jorgensen showed slides of the narwhal tagged in 2007, captured when Laidre was home in Seattle. To catch a unicorn, it is said, you need virgins for bait; to net a narwhal, and transfer it from ocean to beach and back again, a bunkhouse of cowboys would be handier. The whale bucked like a bronco as the hunters, led by one of Laidre's technicians, pinned a transmitter, about the size of a bar of soap, to the dorsal ridge. When at last the tag was secure, the technician was so relieved he smooched the animal's broad back. Then they walked it out with the tide and let it go. One of the hunters had videotaped the entire frothy episode on his cellphone; a year later, the villagers still watched it raptly.


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