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Narwhals: The Ocean’s Mythic Mystery

It’s a debate as old as the internet: are narwhals real? The answer is yes. Despite being called the “unicorns of the sea,” narwhals are very real creatures that inhabit our planet. As their name suggests, these animals have a long tusk protruding from their heads. It’s their defining feature- and what makes them so unique among whales.

A Unique Whale

The narwhal is indeed a member of the whale genus; specifically, it is considered a “toothed whale.” Their scientific name is Monodon Monoceros. This may bring to mind the powerful rhinoceros, another creature associated with unicorns. Along with the beluga whale, they are the only species in the Monodontidae family. Belugas are also considered oddities among whales; it must run in the family.

Narwhals can weigh up to 4200 pounds and reach lengths up to 17 feet. This is without counting the length of the tusk, which can reach an additional 10 feet. The tusks are most seen on males, although sightings on females have been recorded. According to the WWF, the tusk is an enlarged tooth with up to 10 million nerve endings inside. They have sensory capabilities and may play a role in male dominance.

Found predominately in Arctic waters near Canada, Norway, Russia, and Greenland, narwhals can dive up to a mile and a half deep.  Their diet consists of halibut, shrimp, squid, and other fish. During the winter, most of the narwhals’ 80,000+ population migrate to the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait. They rest underwater for five months, getting air through the cracks in the ice.

narwhals 3d render
Render of narwhals in the ocean.

With a population that sizeable, it makes sense that the narwhal is a social creature. Typically, they stick to groups of around 15-20, searching for food and playing together. Sometimes narwhals gather in groups of hundreds, even thousands. This is presumably during migration and mating season. Despite their social behavior among their species, they are skittish around other whales and especially humans.

Like all whales, narwhals have blowholes and can communicate through whale song. This consists of a series of clicks, knocks, and whistles. Narwhals use whale songs as a form of echolocation to detect nearby prey and obstacles. There is also the possibility it is used to incapacitate or disorient prey, but this has not been confirmed.

Mysteries Abound

Narwhals are of particular importance to the Inuit people. For hundreds of years, the Inuit have hunted narwhals for both meat and ivory. While there were some concerns regarding these practices, the tradition continues today under regulations. Of more concern to the narwhals’ safety is climate change and pollution in the Arctic regions where they live.

Tourists and scientists alike travel far and wide to see narwhals, but they are elusive creatures. They live far offshore. They’re shy and only surface for a short while. According to whaletrips.org, the best time to see them would be in summer. You’d still have to plan an expedition to see them, however. Living the northernmost of all whale species suits these shy animals just fine. Occasionally, some will surface closer to civilization if their usual spot is disrupted. But if the ice line is stable, they will follow tradition.

narwhal surfacing
A narwhal surfacing for air.

That said, there is one famous exception. A lone narwhal was separated from its flock and found its way to Quebec. It now lives in the St. Lawrence as the adopted member of a group of belugas. This was back in 2018. If the narwhal is still living among its beluga cousins, it could give scientists more information about beluga-narwhal crosses should it end up breeding. As of this writing, there have been no sightings of any calves.

Narwhals are fascinating creatures. They are anomalies among whales and little research has been done, despite being discovered in 1648. They are beloved but almost mythical in state. Narwhals are an iconic part of internet history (look up the narwhal song if you have the chance) and in evolutionary history. Despite their moniker, they are real. Narwhals are awesome, fantastical, and very much part of our world.

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