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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)

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"

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Several Niaqornat men who'd been out hunting belugas before the storm were stranded a few hundred miles away, but no one in town expressed concern; in fact, everyone seemed quite merry. Winter's arrival is good news on this part of Greenland's coast, because narwhals always follow the freeze.

The whales' fate is tied to the ice. Narwhal fossils have been found as far south as Norfolk, England, to which the ice cover extended 50,000 years ago. Ice protects narwhals from the orcas that sometimes attack their pods; the killer whales' high, stiff dorsal fins, which are like fearsome black pirate sails, prevent them from entering frozen waters. Even more important, Laidre says, narwhals beneath the pane of ice enjoy almost exclusive access to prey—particularly Greenlandic halibut, which may be why they are such gluttons in winter.

Occupying an icy world has its risks. Narwhals lingering too long in the fjords sometimes get trapped as the ice expands and the cracks shrink; they cut themselves horribly trying to breathe. In Canada this past fall, some 600 narwhals were stranded this way, doomed to drown before hunters killed them. These entrapments are called savssats, a derivative of an Inuit word meaning "to bar his way." Laidre believes that massive die-offs in savssats thousands of years ago may account for the narwhal's extraordinarily low genetic diversity.

Still, less ice could spell disaster for narwhals. Since 1979, the Arctic has lost an ice mass the size of nearly two Alaskas, and last summer saw the second-lowest ice cover on record (surpassed only by 2007). So far the water has opened mostly north of Greenland, but hunters in Niaqornat say they've noticed differences in the way their fjord freezes. Even if warming trends are somehow reversed, Laidre's polar-expert colleagues back in Seattle doubt that the ice will ever regain its former coverage area and thickness. Narwhals may be imperiled because of their genetic homogeneity, limited diet and fixed migration patterns. Laidre was the lead author of an influential paper in the journal Ecological Applications that ranked narwhals, along with polar bears and hooded seals, as the arctic species most vulnerable to climate change.

"These whales spend half the year in dense ice," she says. "As the ice's structure and timing changes, the whole oceanography, the plankton ecology, changes, and that affects their prey. Narwhals are a specialist species. Changes in the environment affect them—without a doubt—because they are not flexible."

For the past several years Laidre has been attaching temperature sensors along with tracking gear to captured narwhals. One morning in Niaqornat, she received an e-mail with an analysis of water temperature data collected by 15 tagged narwhals from 2005 to 2007. Compared with historical information from icebreakers, the readings showed warming of a degree or more in the depths of Baffin Bay. Laidre was ecstatic that her collecting method seemed to have worked, though the implications of rising temperatures were disturbing.

Indeed, there are already reports of more killer whales in the Arctic.

Once the gales stopped, it was cold but calm: perfect narwhal weather, Heide-Jorgensen declared. I sailed out to set nets with a hunter, Hans Lovstrom, whose boat kept pace with the kittiwakes, pretty gray-winged gulls. We knotted the rope with bare fingers; mine soon became too cold to move. Lovstrom told me to plunge my hands into the water, then rub them vigorously together. I pretended it helped.

Back in the village, social invitations began to flow into the scientists' little house. Would they like to come to a coffee party? A supper of seal soup? Youth night at the school? The colder the weather, the more the community seemed to warm to the scientists. The first time Laidre and Heide-Jorgensen spent a field season in Niaqornat, the village happened to hold a dance party. Someone strummed an electric guitar. Laidre danced with all the hunters, swooping through the steps of the Greenlandic polka, which European whalers had taught the Inuit centuries ago.

That's what everyone had been hollering about when we'd arrived at Niaqornat the first night—they remembered, and admired, the dancing scientist.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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