Uncovering The Secrets & Behaviors Of Narwhals & Polar Bears

Sep 2, 2015

By Kristin Laidre, Ph.D.

Arctic researcher and Pacific Science Center exhibit contributor Kristin Laidre, Ph.D. delves into the Arctic to understand the inhabitants of this icy region.

I did not set out to study whales – for most of my early life I thought I would be a ballerina. I grew up near landlocked Saratoga Springs, New York, and trained throughout my teens to be an elite dancer. Afer high school, I trained and danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet until a foot injury put an end to my dancing days.

I received my Ph.D. at the University of Washington (UW) from the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences (SAFS) and then worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk. Now, I work as a principal scientist at the Polar Science Center at UW and as an assistant professor at SAFS. I study Arctic animals, in particular the narwhal (an elusive whale species whose long spiraled tooth gave rise to the myth of the unicorn) and the polar bear. Over the course of my career, I have participated in over 30 field expeditions to both coasts of Greenland. Greenland is a stunningly beautiful place, full of interesting people and wildlife.

Narwhals eat the first that live on the ocean floor beneath the sea ice and they can dive almost a mile deep to get their food. They hold their breath for half an hour and find open places in the ice to come up and breathe. One focus of my work has been to track the migration of narwhals. This involves setting up whale-sized nets in the water near an onshore camp. When we catch a narwhal, we raise it out of the water so it can breathe and quickly fasten a satellite transmitter to its back before it’s sent on its way. The transmitters send data on the whale’s location, depth and water temperature to satellites. This information teaches us not only about the narwhals, but also about the changing oceans in which they live.

Sea ice loss in the Arctic may mean big changes for narwhals. What type of changes? We don’t know all of the answers yet. We do know the narwhal is one of the few Arctic whales—and the sea ice is its home. We hope to learn more to be able to understand how this interesting animal will adapt to future changes in the Arctic.