'Unicorns of the sea' is an appropriate epithet for the narwhals of Canada's Arctic – not only do their enormous, spiraled tusks bear a resemblance to that of the mythical equines, but they are about as difficult to capture on film, especially so underwater. Sensitive and shy, narwhals will retreat the moment they detect a stranger's presence in their home. Even the softest crunch of footsteps on the ice above or the gentlest ripple of a fin tip in the water will send them scurrying into the depths. For years, organizations like National Geographic and the BBC had sent photographers and filmmakers to document them, but most, myself included, would return home with little more than recollections of missed or distant encounters. After many trips and half a decade of trying, I finally found success.
In 2006, Jed Weingarten and I had been living on Nunavut's sea ice for two and half months, desperately trying everything within our power to capture images of narwhals below the surface for a feature story in National Geographic Magazine. We had swum out into the open ocean multiple times, dropped remote cameras into the depths from the ice edge, and begun to lose hope when at last, we spotted a pod in the distance one calm, beautiful, glassy evening.
Quickly launching our small kayak, we paddled about three miles off the ice edge into the vast Arctic nothingness, the midnight sun just skimming along the horizon behind us. We slowed as we drew close to the pod, both holding our breath in awe as eight-, nine-, and ten-foot-long ivory tusks rose into the air before glancing off one another in a secret ritual performed by the dozens of males hidden below the surface. It is a behavior we have very little understanding of, although most believe it to be either a playful interaction or some pre-courtship formality. Either way, I pointed out a pair that looked particularly engrossed in one another, and we resumed our slow, cautious advance.
Jed was a world-class expedition kayaker who had navigated many of the world's great rivers in his lifetime. Despite his very powerful yet gentle and absolutely silent paddling technique, there was no guarantee the two males still engaged in their dance would not discover us and withdraw into the depths. I laid down on the bow of the kayak, balancing myself carefully as Jed, who had not had time to pull on a drysuit in our rush to set sail, slowly steered the kayak into position. We were both fully aware that a flip this far offshore could prove fatal.
The dueling males were so utterly engrossed in one another that they didn't even notice the strange pair of newcomers floating ever closer. They might have echolocated us by chance except for the way their bodies were positioned – the closest faced away, blocking the view of his companion as they repeatedly ran their tusks over one another's heads and along each other's backs. With an underwater camera housing secured, I lowered my torso into the water and peered through the viewfinder, Jed drawing slow circles with his paddle until I was within just two feet of this incredible display. He steadied us in the water, and I began to shoot what I already knew was one of the great encounters of my life. It is difficult to describe the overwhelming feeling I experienced when the far narwhal's eight-foot-long ivory tooth reached around his partner and began to brush against my Neoprene-clad head. To my knowledge, I am the only human ever to have been included in this mysterious performance, even if only mistakenly. There was nothing I could do except to keep shooting pictures.
Sadly, nothing lasts forever. The whale with its back to me suddenly dropped a few inches in the water, and I became exposed to his partner, who echolocated me with a single click. In a flash, they untangled themselves and disappeared from view into the inky darkness below. Jed cheered as I pulled my head from the water and lay breathless on the kayak, slowly recovering from the adrenaline rushing through my veins.
The memory remains very close to my heart – one of my deathbed experiences, or so I call them. As guilty as I felt for disturbing the narwhals, an image captured during the encounter ended up as the opening spread in our National Geographic article, helping to connect millions of people around the world to a precious species in dire need of conservation efforts.