Chasing After The Elusive Narwhal Way up north in the Arctic, one researcher spends summers studying the narwhals — whales with a unicorn horn. Much remains unknown about the life and behaviors of these wily creatures, which are extremely tough to track.
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Chasing After The Elusive Narwhal

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Chasing After The Elusive Narwhal

Chasing After The Elusive Narwhal

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If you head far north, almost to the North Pole, you might find unicorns -well, actually unicorns of the sea - narwhals, a kind of whale. The male narwhal has a long spiral tusk, and for centuries these tusks were passed off as unicorn horns and prized for their magic powers.

These days, biologists are trying to study narwhals, but they can be as elusive as their mythical cousins. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce traveled to northwest Greenland for this report.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: One quiet evening, not too long ago, Kristin Laidre was standing on a rocky beach, peering out across a fjord filled with icebergs. The water looked strangely still under the nighttime sun.

Ms. KRISTIN LAIDRE (Biologist): It's great conditions for seeing narwhals. They're so sneaky but they can't really hide when the sea is like a mirror.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A small group of narwhals moved past a glacier that spilled down from the Greenland ice cap. Their path left a shimmering trail in the water.

Ms. LAIDRE: They're swimming away from the nets.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Really? You can tell that from here?

Ms. LAIDRE: Yeah, they seem to be swimming towards the other side right now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kristin Laidre has been coming to this fjord for the last eight years. Again and again, she's tried to catch a narwhal by setting up giant nets. This shouldn't be impossible. She and her colleagues have done it in other places.

Ms. LAIDRE: We definitely can catch them in nets in Greenland and in Canada — in many places in Canada. But here, we haven't managed to do it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though in summer, thousands of narwhals live here in Inglefield Bredning fjord. Still, she keeps trying, because if she can briefly snag a narwhal, she could attach a sturdy satellite transmitter to its back. For months, it would send back all kinds of information - where the narwhal goes, how deep it dives.

The narwhal has long been famous for its unicorn horn — it's thought to be the whale version of a peacock's tail or a lion's mane - but most of the narwhal's life is a mystery, hidden by darkness and ice.

Ms. LAIDRE: The main reason that narwhals are not studied is that it's not very easy. They live in this, you know, totally extreme environment, where half the year it's completely dark, and minus 30, and covered in ice, and the whales are 200 kilometers offshore, and nobody in their right mind would make an expedition to study them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then in the summer…

Ms. LAIDRE: They're completely skittish and shy from humans, and so you have to wait days before you might even see a narwhal. I mean days, weeks.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so she waits - and waits. For two weeks in July, she heads up a little camp on this remote, rocky beach. There's a few tents, a couple of colleagues from Denmark, plus five Inuit hunters from a nearby town. Twenty-four hours a day, someone keeps watch on big white floats that will bob and jerk if a narwhal swims in the nets.

Kristin Laidre says, if that happens, she'll pull on a survival suit and rush towards the water to get her hands on the narwhal so she can tag it. In other places, when she's managed to do this, it's been an intense.

Ms. LAIDRE: It's struggling, it's trying to get free, and it's trying to get untangled, and it wants to come up for air, and it's going up and it's diving.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Is it like a fish? I mean, does it feel slippery?

Ms. LAIDRE: King of like an inner tube, a little bit, a hard inner tube. I mean, their breath isn't that great. They have whale breath - kind of a heavy, little blubbery smell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In this fjord, she can see and even hear the narwhals spout, but only from far away. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do. For days, we sit around and stare at the blue sky, the blue water and icebergs — lots of icebergs — some of them bigger than houses. They drift by like clouds. Kristin Laidre watches with a colleague, partly to make sure none of them are headed for the nets.

Ms. LAIDRE: It's a lot easier to catch icebergs. Maybe we should change fields.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Ms. LAIDRE: Did it ever occur to you?

Unidentified Man: We could even tag them and see where they're going.

Ms. LAIDRE: It's a great idea.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is not what Kristin Laidre expected to be doing with her life. Her dream was ballet.

Ms. LAIDRE: I trained intensively through high school, and then I went and I danced with a ballet company in Seattle.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But then she had an injury, so she went to college and now has a research job at the University of Washington.

She thinks ballet was actually good training for studying narwhals.

Ms. LAIDRE: You learn how to be miserable and suffer, and like, you just have to keep going for the sake of what you're doing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One night, everything is suddenly covered by a white mist. The hunters have to take in the nets.

(Soundbite of yelling)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As the fog lifts, but before the nets go back out, the narwhals appear, frolicking in front of the glacier, totally out of reach.

To pass the time, Kristin Laidre decides to decorate a plywood sign that's lying around. Under the name of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which supports this project, there's the black outline of a narwhal. She picks up a paintbrush.

So, while you're painting this narwhal white, let me ask you this question:

Ms. LAIDRE: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Have you ever read "Moby Dick?"

Ms. LAIDRE: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you ever feel like Captain Ahab?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAIDRE: I feel worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAIDRE: Like I'm in pursuit of something impossible and elusive and - yeah. I approach it with a very fatalistic attitude, or a very realistic attitude with a good sense of humor. Not expecting too much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then, two days before she has to leave, the narwhals come into view. Kristin Laidre joins two hunters at the top of a hill and peers through binoculars.

Ms. LAIDRE: This is a good chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The backs of the narwhals glisten. They're near shore, moving slowly. She runs down to the beach, pulls out her box of satellite transmitters, and struggles into a red survival suit.

Ms. LAIDRE: I think it's really close. This is the closest we've come in a really long time. After all these years, I don't usually put my suit on unless I, like, really believe that there might be a chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's quiet and tense, watching the narwhals. They move toward the nets. Then they veer slightly and slip away.

Ms. LAIDRE: It looks good, really looked good, but they, yeah. They play the same trick.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She takes off her suit and starts making dinner, but that night in her tent she hardly sleeps, waking every hour to check the nets. When she does drift off, narwhals swim into her dreams. One beaches itself by her tent. Another is strangely tiny, like a salamander, at her feet.

Ms. LAIDRE: But for various reasons, I still couldn't tag them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAIDRE: So, they were really weird dreams, and then I woke up and I thought, I think it might be time to go home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The nets are pulled out onto the rocky shore. Everything gets packed into a permanent tent for storage. It's locked up, and the plywood sign with the painted narwhal is screwed over the front door. And Kristin Laidre says she hopes to come back next year, to try again.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Got to be honest: we can't get enough of this story, so tomorrow we will introduce you to the Inuit hunters who know the narwhals better than anyone.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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