Meet the Narwhal: A Near-Threatened Arctic Animal

May 3, 2016

Spotting a narwhal on an arctic expedition may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, given that only 75,000 of these legendary creatures still roam the arctic waters around Greenland, Canada and Russia.

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Considered a “near-threatened” species, the narwhal is a member of the Monodontidae family and is most closely related to the beluga whale. The male narwhal’s elongated upper-left canine, which looks more like a spiral tusk than a tooth, gives these animals a unique appearance, earning them the nickname “unicorn of the sea.” Though scientists remain conflicted about the tusk’s purpose, many believe it’s an important part of mating rituals.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a narwhal (or any other specific arctic animals) on your arctic adventure. But we do know that narwhals frequent the waters around Beechey Island, so you may be able to spot one on our Arctic Icebreaker Expedition: Ultimate Northwest Passage or Greenland to Canada: Inuit, Icebergs, and Wildlife, amongst other arctic itineraries. If you’ve heard of the narwhal’s song or perhaps spotted a picture of this unique creature and want to learn more about it, check out these interesting narwhal facts.

Key Narwhal Facts

Tipping the scales at 1,800 to 3,500 lbs (800 to 1,600 kg), adult narwhals are medium-sized whales ranging in length from 13 to 18 feet (3.95 to 5.5 meters). Males are usually slightly larger than females, and neither have a dorsal fin. One characteristic unique to these mysterious arctic animals is that their neck vertebrae are jointed, as in those of mammals, not fused, as in other whales and dolphins.

Narwhals enjoy a lengthy lifespan and can survive up to 50 years. In winter, they migrate to bays, where they dine on benthos organisms – typically flatfish like flounder and halibut, or crustaceans that live on the floor of these shallow ocean inlets. In summer, they often travel in pods of 2 to 10, returning to deeper ocean waters to feast on arctic cod, Greenland halibut and other arctic fish. Don’t be surprised if you see a much larger gathering, as sightings of hundreds of narwhals traveling together have been reported.

The male narwhal’s tusk is more than a mere curiosity: protruding through the upper lip, the tusk, which can grow up to 10 feet (three meters) long, has millions of nerve endings inside, as well as sensory capabilities. Some males grow a second tusk on the right side, though it’s usually shorter than the tusk on the left.

Sea ice poses the greatest threat to narwhals, who can suffocate if caught in deep water when it freezes over. Narwhals trapped in ice are easy prey for polar bears and walruses, and young narwhal are particularly susceptible to starvation. Hunting is also a threat, though hunts by Inuit people, who have sought narwhal meat and ivory for over a thousand years, are now regulated.

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The Narwhal’s Song

Like other whales and porpoises, narwhals use unique sounds to navigate, hunt and communicate with one another under water. The narwhal’s song consists of clicks, knocks, whistles and even bangs, created by controlling the passage of air between its blowhole. Fisheries and Oceans Canada describes the narwhal’s song in a compendium of narwhal facts:

“Clicks and ‘knock’ sounds can come slowly, like knocks on a door. Faster sequences sound like a stick on a picket fence, and can also come in very rapid succession, producing a kind of trumpet blare or the sound of a squeaking door.”

Narwhals use these sounds to detect prey or obstacles at short ranges, or to communicate with one another. Males use a wider range of vocalizations than females do.

Spotting a Narwhal

According to authors Dawn Elaine Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell, Inuit legend has it that the narwhal’s tusk was created when a woman struck a large narwhal with a harpoon. With the harpoon rope tied around her waist, the woman was dragged into the ocean and transformed into a narwhal – and the twisted knot of her hair became the characteristic spiral tusk.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be dragged into the depths of the Arctic Ocean to spot a narwhal or hear the narwhal’s song. You may see one on an arctic expedition while cruising in a small ship, but more often they can be seen from the air. Flying from Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge to Beechey Island, expedition passengers can typically spot them swimming in the Northwest Passage. The Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker, which will circumnavigate the Arctic this summer, has two on-board Mil Mi-2 helicopters used for sightseeing and scouting ice and sea conditions. The helicopters offer another great opportunity for a bird’s-eye view of the arctic marine life you may not be able to see in the thick, multiyear sea ice. Turn your eyes toward the shores of any landmass where there may be open water, as that’s where you may spot these beautiful arctic animals swimming and feeding.

To learn more about which Quark Expeditions® itineraries offer the greatest possibility of spotting a narwhal in the wild, contact an experienced Polar Travel Adviser.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER - NOAA Photolib Library

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