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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"Kusanaq," Heide-Jorgensen told the hunters. "Beautiful. A great collaboration. This time we'll move the tag back a little and also put on a tusk transmitter."

He explained that he and Laidre would pay: 20,000 Danish kroner, or about $3,700, for a captured beluga, which the scientists were also studying; $4,500 for a qernertaq, or narwhal; $5,500 for a qernertaq tuugaalik, or tusked narwhal (hunters expect more for males because they're accustomed to selling the tusks); and $6,400 for an angisoq tuugaaq, or large tusked narwhal.

The hunters thought this over for a moment, then one raised his hand with a question: What would happen if the whale died?

In that case, the scientists explained, the meat would be divided equally among the villagers.

The scientists also screened a map of the tagged narwhal's travels, its movements traced in green. The whales can migrate more than 1,000 miles in a year. After leaving Niaqornat this one had wandered farther into the fjord in December and January, near Uummannaq, a bigger town with bars and restaurants, where many of the hunters had friends and rivals. Then in March it had turned north toward its summering grounds near Melville Bay, at which point the transmitter stopped working. The hunters eyed the crazy green zigzag with fascination. Though some had seen the data before in weekly e-mail updates from the scientists, it was still astonishing stuff. Some later said they'd enjoy daily updates: they wanted to track the narwhal like traders follow the stock market. When the hunters finally left, full of coffee, cake and respectful criticisms of Laidre's baking, the matter was decided. They would set nets in the morning.

Well, immaqa aqagu.

That evening, the temperature, which had sometimes reached the balmy 40s during the day—"Beluga weather," Heide-Jorgensen had said a bit contemptuously—plunged into the teens. Even inside the house, the cold was devouring. All night the wind whooped and the dogs sang and the waves bludgeoned the shore. By morning the dogs had curled into miserable little doughnuts in the snow. The hunters dragged their boats to higher ground. On the hills above town much of the snow had blown away, giving the black earth a dappled appearance, like narwhal skin. No nets would be set today, nor—if the weather report was accurate—for days to come.

"No nets and no underwear," said Laidre, whose personal field gear was due to arrive on a helicopter that almost certainly wouldn't show. "Life is not easy."

At times like these she almost envied colleagues who studied microscopic organisms in jars instead of whales in the raging North Atlantic. Her own brother, a graduate student at Princeton, was researching hermit crabs on the beaches of Ireland, where a cozy pub was never far away. Meanwhile, in Niaqornat, the wind was so vicious that Heide-Jorgensen got trapped in the community bathhouse for hours. The scientists took to singing the Merle Haggard song "If We Make It Through December." For days they made spreadsheets, calibrated transmitters, charged their headlamps—anything to keep busy.

There was some excitement when a young hunter, having learned that I had passed my whole life never having tasted narwhal mattak, arrived with a frozen piece from last year's harvest. (I had asked him what it tasted like, and he said, with a pitying gaze, "Mattak is mattak.") Hazelnut was not the flavor that came to my mind. But Laidre and Heide-Jorgensen tucked away great mouthfuls of the stuff, dipped in soy sauce. In the old days, foreign sailors who abstained from vitamin-C-rich whale mattak sometimes died of scurvy.


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