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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"

That's because she's devoted to what she calls "possibly the worst study animal in the world." Narwhals live in the cracks of dense pack ice for much of the year. They flee from motorboats and helicopters. They can't be herded toward shore like belugas, and because they're small (for whales) and maddeningly fast, it's little use trying to tag them with transmitters shot from air rifles. They must be netted and manhandled, although Laidre is trying a variation on an aboriginal method, attaching transmitters to modified harpoons that hunters toss from stealthy Greenlandic kayaks.

"Narwhals are hopelessly hard to see, never come when you want them to, swimming far offshore and underwater the whole time," she says. "You think you'll catch a whale in three weeks, you probably won't. Whole field seasons go by and you don't even see a narwhal. There are so many disappointments. It takes great patience and optimism—those are my two words."

The species is practically a blank slate, which is what drew her to narwhals in the first place—that and the crystalline allure of the Arctic. By now she has analyzed scores of narwhal carcasses and managed to tag and follow about 40 live animals, publishing new information about diving behavior, migration patterns, relationship to sea ice and reactions to killer whales. Much of what the world knows about the narwhal's picky eating habits comes from Laidre's research, particularly a 2005 study that offered the first evidence of the whales' winter diet, which is heavy in squid, arctic cod and Greenland halibut. She is the co-author of the 2006 book Greenland's Winter Whales.

Basic questions drive her work. How many narwhals are there? Where do they travel and why? Greenland's government funds part of her expeditions, and her findings influence how the narwhal hunting season is managed. As Greenland modernizes, Laidre hopes to raise public awareness about the whales and their significance to the people and environment of the north. Especially now that the climate seems to be warming, narwhals, Laidre believes, will be seriously affected by melting.

"Most creatures on earth we know a lot more about," Laidre says. "We probably know a lot more about the brains of grasshoppers than we do about narwhals."

The alabaster beluga's dark cousin, the narwhal is not a conventionally beautiful animal. Its unlovely name means "corpse whale," because its splotchy flesh reminded Norse sailors of a drowned body. This speckled complexion is "weird," says James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH); usually, he says, whales are a more uniform color. And unlike other whales, narwhals—which can live more than 100 years—die shortly in captivity, greatly reducing the opportunity to study them. "We've only had a glimpse of the beast," Pierre Richard, a prominent Canadian narwhal specialist, told me.

The whales mate in cracks of ice in the dead of winter, in pitch darkness, when the wind chill can drive the air temperature to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. ("Not very romantic," Richard notes.) While shifting currents and winds create breaks in the ice, enabling the animals to surface and breathe, the whales must keep moving to avoid getting trapped. Because of the extreme cold, calves are born husky, about one-third the size of their 12-foot-long, 2,000-pound mothers. Like belugas and bowheads, which also inhabit arctic waters, narwhals are about 50 percent body fat; other whales are closer to 20 or 30 percent. No one has ever seen a submerged narwhal eat. Laidre led a study of the stomach contents of 121 narwhals that suggested they fast in summer and gorge on fish in winter.

Fond of bottom-dwelling prey like Greenland halibut, narwhals are incredibly deep divers. When Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen, Laidre's Danish colleague and frequent collaborator, pioneered narwhal-tagging techniques in the early 1990s, his transmitters kept breaking under the water pressure. Five hundred meters, 1,000, 1,500—the whales, which have compressible rib cages, kept plunging. They bottomed out around 1,800 meters—more than a mile deep. At such depths, the whales apparently swim upside down much of the time.

The whales' most dazzling feature, of course, is the swizzle-stick tusk that sprouts from their upper left jaw. Though the whales' scientific name is Monodon monoceros, "one tooth, one horn," an occasional male has two tusks (the NMNH has two rare specimens) and only 3 percent of females have a tusk at all. The solitary fang, which is filled with dental pulp and nerves like an ordinary tooth, can grow thick as a lamppost and taller than a man, and it has a twist. On living whales, it's typically green with algae and alive with sea lice at its base. No one's sure precisely how or why it evolved—it has been called a weapon, an ice pick, a kind of dousing rod for fertile females, a sensor of water temperature and salinity, and a lure for prey. Herman Melville joked that it was a letter opener.

"Everybody has a theory on this," Laidre says with a sigh. (The question comes up a lot at cocktail parties.)

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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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