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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As long as the whales keep coming, maybe Greenland's hunting settlements won't be completely absorbed into the growing tourism culture that rents out aluminum igloos to rich foreigners and pays elite hunters to wear polar bear pants in the summertime and toss harpoons for show.

The Sunday before I left Greenland (Laidre would stay for several more weeks), the stranded beluga hunters chugged back to Niaqornat in their boat. Just before darkness fell, people made their way down to the water. Bundled-up babies were lifted high overhead for a better view; older children were ruddy with excitement, because beluga mattak is second only to the narwhal's as winter fare. The dogs yelped as the yellow boat, laminated with ice, pulled into the dock.

Bashful before so many eyes but stealing proud looks at their wives, the hunters spread tarps and then tossed out sections of beluga spine and huge, quivering organs, which landed with a slap on the dock. Last of all came the beluga mattak, folded in bags, like fluffy white towels. The dismembered whales were loaded into wheelbarrows and spirited away; there would be great feasting that night on beluga, which, like narwhal meat, is nearly black because of all the oxygen-binding myoglobin in the muscle. It would be boiled and served with generous crescents of blubber. The scientists would be guests of honor.

"When I'm old and in a nursing home, I'll think of the friends I have in the Arctic as much as my experiences with whales," Laidre had told me. "And I'm happy that my work helps protect a resource that's so important to their lives."

The hunters had good news, too. Hundreds of miles north, in the endless blackness of ocean and near-permanent night, they had crossed paths with a pod of narwhals, perhaps the first of the season, making their way south toward the fjord.

Abigail Tucker is the magazine's staff writer.


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