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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"

Most scientists, Laidre included, side with Charles Darwin, who speculated in The Descent of Man that the ivory lance was a secondary sex characteristic, like a moose's antlers, useful in establishing dominance hierarchies. Males have been observed gently jousting with their teeth—the scientific term is "tusking"—when females are nearby. The tooth, Laidre patiently explains, cannot be essential because most females survive without one.

In 2004, Greenland set narwhal-hunting quotas for the first time, despite some hunters' protests, and banned the export of the tusks, halting a thousand-year-old trade. Conservationists—newly roiled this past summer by the discovery of dozens of dead narwhals in East Greenland, the tusks chopped out of the skulls and the meat left to rot—want still more restrictions. It's estimated there are at least 80,000 of the animals, but nobody knows for sure. The International Union for Conservation of Nature this year said the species was "near threatened."

To track the whales, Laidre and Heide-Jorgensen have collaborated with hunters on Greenland's west coast and were just starting to build relationships in the village of Niaqornat when I asked to tag along. We would arrive in late October and the scientists would remain through mid-November, as darkness descended and the ice glided into the fjords, and the pods of whales, which they suspect summer in Melville Bay several hundred miles north, made their way south. It was a time frame that some of Laidre's colleagues in Seattle, many of them climate scientists who prefer to study the Arctic via buoy and robotic plane, considered vaguely insane.

Laidre, of course, was optimistic. 

When Laidre, Heide-Jorgensen and I first reached the village, after a two-hour boat ride that involved rounding icebergs in the inky blackness of a late arctic afternoon, the sled dogs greeted us like hysterical fans at a rock concert while villagers crowded the boat, reaching in to pull out our luggage and hollering at Laidre in Greenlandic.

Niaqornat ( pop. 60) is on a tongue of land in Baffin Bay inside the Arctic Circle. The settlement sits hard against a white wall of mountains, where men hunting arctic grouse leave tiny red droplets in their footsteps on the slopes: blackberries crushed under the snow. Greenland has its own home-rule government but remains a Danish possession, and thanks to the Danish influence the town is fully wired, with personal computers glowing like hearths in almost every living room. But none of the houses, including the drafty three-room field station used by Laidre and other scientists, has plumbing or running water; the kerosene stoves that keep the water from freezing are easily puffed out by the ripping wind, which also brings waves bashing against the town's scrap of black beach.

With its tide line of pulverized ice crystals, the beach is the chaotic center of village life, scattered with oil drums, anchors and the hunters' little open boats, some of which are decorated with arctic fox tails like lucky giant rabbit's feet. There are waterfront drying racks hung with seal ribs, waxen-looking strips of shark and other fish, and the occasional musk ox head masked with ice. Throughout the town, sled dogs are staked to the frozen ground; there are at least three times as many dogs as people.

Signs of narwhals are everywhere, especially now that the tusk market has been shut down and hunters can't sell the ivory for gas money and other expenses. The whales' undeveloped inner teeth are strung up over front porches like clothespins on a line. A thick tooth is proudly mounted on the wall of the little building that serves as the town hall, school, library and church (complete with sealskin kneelers). It seems the fashion to lean a big tusk across a house's front window.

"There are months when no supplies are coming into the town, and people depend only on what they pull out of the sea," Laidre told me. "The arrival of these whales is a small window of opportunity, and hunters have to have an extremely deep knowledge of how they behave."

The narwhals typically arrive in November, darting into the fjord in pursuit of gonatus squid, and Niaqornat men in motorboats shoot the animals with rifles. But in the springtime, when the whales pass by again on their way north, the hunters work in the old way, driving their dog sleds out into the ice-covered fjord. Then they creep in single file, wearing sealskin boots so as not to make a sound—even a clenched toe can make the ice creak. They get as close as they can to the surfacing whales, then hurl their harpoons.

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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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