Daniel Botelho recently embarked on a mission to locate and photograph the legendary “unicorn of the sea”: the narwhal.
It was a North Pole adventure even he realized was likely to end in failure, because narwhals are famously shy around boats and people, and very few underwater photographs of the strange-looking mammals exist.
But Botelho, who was working on a project for Disney and gathering material for an upcoming book, did more than photograph narwhals. One of them, a female, became curious of the photographer and followed him as he swam through the frozen waters of the high Arctic.
“I always knew it would be very tough to get close to a narwhal whale,” Botelho said. “It is notoriously hard to get close to one. But while all the staff could only stand a half-hour in the water, I took advantage of my cold resistance and stayed for three hours, and suddenly something happened that no one would ever consider: a narwhal whale made friendship with a man.”
It was a magical encounter, to be sure, and while the photographer thought he might have ruined one of his images by inadvertently sticking his swim fin into the frame (immediately above), he later discovered that this gives the image perspective by showing the proximity of the diver to the mammal—”and that it was following me!”
Narwhals, which can measure to about 20 feet and weigh 3,500 pounds, are amazing for many reasons. But they’re most famous for their single long tusks, which look as though they’re protruding from the mammals’ foreheads. The spiraling ivory tusks, which are evident only on males, are actually a single tooth that sprouts through a narwhal’s upper lip.
The unicorn-like tusks can measure to about 9 feet and are sometimes used during jousts with other narwhals. Scientists are not sure why male narwhals grow these tusks, but speculate that they’re used to impress female narwhals and, possibly, to wage battle with rival males during the mating season.
Narwhals, which are related to beluga whales, feed on cod and other fishes, as well as shrimp and squid. One of their primary challenges is the constantly changing ice; it sometimes closes around them and they often have to swim long distances beneath the ice to find another patch of open water.
Botelho’s group camped on the ice and dove in 28-degree water. They wore dry suits with warm clothing beneath, but the water still seemed brutally cold.
“In order to get the whales relaxed, I spent three hours in a row in this water,” Botelho said. “But my face was uncovered and I had ice-burn blisters. After three hours the expedition leader called me back because we needed to get back to camp, and when I started to move a female narwhal came straight to me, bumped my leg, and started to follow me.
She followed me until the time I left the water, and people around me were amazed, including the [native] Inuits. They are very mystic with narwhals and they know how shy they are, so having a narwhal touching me was like magical to them … I cried.”
Incredibly, before Botelho climbed onto the ice with his face and hands burning in pain, he reached out with his camera and captured a self-portrait with the narwhal just a few feet away (bottom image).
It just might be the only photo of its kind.
–To view more photos, visit Daniel Botelho’s Facebook page