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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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Even before the hunters were off the phone, Kristin Laidre was out of her pajamas and struggling into a survival suit. She ran down to the beach, where a motorboat awaited. The night was frigid with ice-chip stars; the northern lights glowed green overhead. Laidre and a colleague sped past looming bergs and black cliffs plated with ice to the spot offshore where the villagers' boats were circling. The whale was there, a thrashing ton of panic amid the swells. Laidre could see its outline in the water and smell its sour breath.

The scientists and hunters maneuvered boats and began hauling in the nylon net that had been strung from shore and floated with plastic buoys. It was exceptionally heavy because it was soaking wet and, Laidre would recall, "there was a whale in it." Once the mottled black animal was in a secure hammock, they could slip a rope on its tail and a hoop net over its head and float it back to the beach to be measured and tagged.

But something was wrong. The whale seemed to be only partially caught—snagged by the head or tail, Laidre wasn't sure. The hunters screamed at each other, the seas heaved and the boats drifted toward the fierce cliffs. The hunters fought to bring the whale up, and for a moment it seemed as if the animal, a big female, was theirs—Laidre reached out and touched its rubbery skin.

Then the whale went under and the net went limp, and with a sinking heart Laidre shined her pale headlamp into water as dark as oil.

The narwhal was gone.

Kristin Laidre did not set out to wrestle whales in the devastatingly cold waters off Greenland's west coast. She wanted to be a ballerina. Growing up near landlocked Saratoga Springs, New York, where the New York City Ballet spends its summer season, she discovered the choreography of George Balanchine and trained throughout her teens to be an elite dancer. After high school, she danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of the nation's most competitive companies, and while practicing a grueling 12 hours a day performed in Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and The Firebird.

Wearing hiking boots instead of toe shoes, she still carries herself with a dancer's grace, a perfect surety of movement that suggests she can execute a plié or stand up to a polar bear with equal competence. Laidre's three-year dance career ended after a foot injury, but she says ballet prepared her rather well for her subsequent incarnation as an arctic biologist and perhaps America's leading expert on narwhals, the shy and retiring cetaceans with the "unicorn horn"—actually a giant tooth—found only in the Greenlandic and Canadian Arctic.

"When you are a ballet dancer you learn how to suffer," Laidre explains. "You learn to be in conditions that aren't ideal, but you persist because you're doing something you love and care about. I have a philosophy that science is art, that there is creativity involved, and devotion. You need artistry to be a scientist."

Like the elusive whale she studies, which follows the spread and retreat of the ice edge, Laidre, 33, has become a migratory creature. After earning undergraduate and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington, she now spends part of her year at its Polar Science Center, and the rest of the time she works with collaborators in Denmark or Greenland, conducting aerial surveys, picking through whale stomachs and setting up house in coastal hunting settlements, where she hires hunters to catch narwhals. Along the way she has learned to speak Danish and rudimentary West Greenlandic.

The Greenlandic phrase she hears most often—whenever the weather blows up or the transmitters malfunction or the whales don't show—is immaqa aqagu. Maybe tomorrow.

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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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