Washington DC’s Smithsonian is our great national storehouse. Ruth and I only planned to visit one of the buildings in its complex, but we ended up spending time in 5. We simply couldn’t stay away.
We were shocked to learn that the one we DID plan to see requires tickets and has been so successful that there’s an 8 month waiting list to get in. The National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened in September, 2016, attracts so many that the Smithsonian, like the National Park Service, has had to institute a crowd limiting system. The best of three ways to get in is to request tickets for the next available date, which will probably be several months in the future. However, a miracle happened and we got in. I’ll tell you about it another day.
While we were in Washington, DC, a new and excellent exhibit opened in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. “Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend” is a 5 Compass treat that will be up through 2019. Tickets are not required but dealing with a crowd is. Again, we got lucky and saw it on its first day without a complication.
This fine exhibit has several themes. The three main ones involve this mammal’s mysterious reputation, its impact on Inuits, and how the warming of the Arctic Ocean will eventually impact these whales. Like me, you’ve probably never seen one because narwhals never survive in captivity. They have several nicknames including unicorn of the sea and one-horned fish. Neither is accurate because unicorns are mythical creatures and a narwhal is not a fish.
A lot of mystery surrounds their horns. Scientists don’t yet understand their function. Theories abound about mating rituals, self-defense, etc. What is known for sure about narwhals is that they migrate, require openings in the ice so they can breathe, and only live near the Arctic Circle. A quota system limits the number of them that the Inuit, the only humans allowed to hunt them, can acquire each year. Narwhals use echolocation and vocalize like other whales, and I enjoyed the opportunity to actually hear them and some creaking ice. They travel in groups of up to 1,000. There are about 172,400 of them so they’re not considered endangered.
This exhibit is for learning what some will consider way too much about little-known creatures. For example, I had never heard of grolar bears. Vikings traded narwhal tusks with other cultures who thought they had medicinal properties when ground up. The Inuit name for narwhals is qilalugaq qirniqtaaq, and please don’t ask me to pronounce this. Some imaginative humans over time have believed that the narwhal’s spiral tusk “inspired unicorn imagery”. A BCE Roman writer named Claudius Aelianus was the first known human to describe a unicorn.
This exhibit, as you cans see, is comprehensive about a little known sea creature and will be successful but probably not as popular as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Yosemite National Park.