Unicorn of the Sea – Narwhal Facts and Mysteries
Take an Arctic safari to meet Narwhal whales
By Mat Whitelaw, Arctic Kingdom Adventures & Tours
A big part of nature tourism is getting excited about what amazing creatures are out there in the wild for nature-loving guests to observe. Some creatures are rare and illusive, often requiring a considerable effort to travel to the ends of the earth to immerse in their limited habitat. Some are almost too fantastical to be true … like the “unicorn of the sea” narwhal, 75% of which spend each summer migrating around Canada’s High Arctic!
The narwhal is most closely related to white beluga whales and these two species of marine mammal comprise the only existing members of the family Monodontidae. While beluga whales have been successfully kept in captivity for more accessible viewing, narwhal can only be observed in the wild. At up to 17 feet in length, narwhals are big but not huge, with adult females weighing an average of 1,000 kg/2,200 lbs and adult males weighing about 1,600 kg/3,500 lbs. Their life span is roughly 50 years, spent in the waters of northern Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.
Narwhals have a mottled pattern, with blackish-brown markings over a white background. They are darkest when they are younger and become whiter as they get older. The tail flukes, the two wings that form the tail, of males have front edges that are more concave and lack a sweep-back shape found in females. This is thought to be an adaptation to overcome the drag caused by the tusk.
Like other Arctic whales including the bowhead and beluga, the narwhal does not have a dorsal fin on its back. The absence of a dorsal fin allows these whales to prevent heat loss by reducing their body surface area, and it allows them to swim smoothly under ice sheets. This whale species is one of the deepest diving of marine mammals. They can dive as deep as 1,500 m/4,500 ft lasting around 25 minutes under water.
People have wondered for ages just why the narwhal even has a tusk. Elephants have tusks to push brush and branches out of their way, rhinos have a horn to defend themselves, and even the Arctic walrus has teeth/tusks to crack open breathing holes in the ice during the frozen winter. But why does a narwhal have a tusk? The short answer is we are not sure.
The Narwhal Tusk: Facts and Mysteries
The tusk is a canine tooth that protrudes through the lip and continuously grows throughout the narwhal’s life, reaching a length of up to 10 ft or 3.5 m. This is the only straight tusk in the world, with all other tusks having some curve.
All narwhals have two canine teeth that can grow into a tusk, but generally it is the upper left tooth that actually grows. This tusk will always form a left turning helix spiral. Even when a second tusk grows, as occasionally happens, both tusks spiral to the left.
The tusk grows in most males and only about 15% of females. About one in 500 males grow two tusks, and only one female has ever been recorded with two tusks.
What are narwhal tusks for? There are lots of ideas but scientists remain unsure on this question. They aren’t used for dueling and narwhals don’t spear food with them. If it was an evolutionary trait for hunting and not dueling, then more females would have them too. The mystery thickens!
We know it is a tooth, but its composition is inverted from other mammal teeth. There is normally a hard coating of enamel, dentin and cementum that shields the sensitive nerves. But in fact, the narwhal tusk has nerves on the outside with the dense material on the inside of the hollow tusk. It appears to be used as a sensory organ with the tusk having millions of tiny holes and nerve endings on the surface of the tusk.
Seawater enters tiny holes in the tusk that channels the water into a “sensory center” at the base of the tusk. These nerve endings send valuable information to the brain giving it information on the water around them. It is believed that they can sense chemical changes in the water like the salt levels, temperatures, and water pressure while they’re migrating. And it is also believed that they can sense “attraction” chemicals released by potential mates.
Narwhal have been observed to use the rare practice of tapping a fish to stun it when they eat. But primarily it is believed to be a guiding feature. That means that when they gently do rub tusks together, it’s possible that they are transferring important information about the water’s environment.
One of the more simplistic reasons for the tusk’s existence could be that it is something of a flashy gender-based characteristic, like a lion’s mane. The idea being that it offers little function and sets certain narwhals apart from others for mating rights.
This mysterious tooth is one of nature’s more intriguing features. Like the unicorn of folklore, the mystery of the narwhal’s tusk draws people to observe this Arctic whale. Naturally, it has become the stuff of legends over the centuries!
There is nothing more incredible than seeing these beautiful whales burst above the water’s surface. Capturing a photo of a tusked narwhal fulfills any Arctic bucket list. With an estimated population of 80,000 worldwide, and 75% of these marine mammals migrating into the Canadian Arctic, there is no better place to see them!
Follow Up Facts Arctic Kingdom, www.arctickingdom.com, is a global leader in land-based group travel and custom experiences in the Canadian Arctic. After 20 years of operating in this remarkable region, the company has unparalleled expertise in Arctic wildlife and habitats, creating journeys that capture the imagination of every guest. Based on the skills and knowledge of expert local Inuit guides, Arctic Kingdom has unmatched access, built through years of deep-rooted relationships with Inuit communities. Most Arctic safari guests are between 50 and 80 years of age.
On Arctic Kingdom’s Narwhal & Polar Bear, a Floe Edge Safari, the tour’s viewing location is along the primary Canadian High Arctic whale migration route, with the majority of the world’s narwhal and beluga population traveling past to summer feeding grounds each year. Standing on the ice edge as narwhal and beluga whales swim past, here is a breathtaking, close-up opportunity for unparalleled photography of these animals, and a chance to see polar bears too while enjoying longer days under the Midnight Sun.
This unique small-group adventure includes round trip flights between Ottawa and Pond Inlet in the remote Canadian territory of Nunavut, a six-night tented safari camp on ice, use of kayaks, dry-suit and accessories for snorkelling, meals and ground transportation. There are four departures in May and June 2021.
Check out the Travel Nunavut website, www.travelnunavut.ca, for more information about tourism in this northeastern territory of Canada.
Still want more narwhal facts? World Wildlife Fund has assembled the ultimate narwhal fact sheet, including threats to their habitat, what they eat, and conservation efforts.
In our publication’s Travel Article Library, we also recommend an informative article about the walrus, an equally fascinating marine mammal found only in the circumpolar regions of the High Arctic.
Mathew Whitelaw is a marketing and travel writer who enjoys educating future Arctic Ambassadors on the Arctic realm and inspiring people to experience the adventure of a lifetime in the North. He writes articles about northern animals and environments, Inuit culture, Northern history, wildlife migrations and behaviours, and adventure travel. More of his articles may be found on the Arctic Kingdom website.