Narwhals

NARWHALS

Narwhals are the mystical unicorns of the sea. If you want to meet them, you have to go to where ice of the Arctic meets the ocean.

Credit

Foto: istock/Andre_Anita

Review NARWHALS

Narwhals, the unicorns of the sea, live extremely far up north at the border between ocean and ice. Trying to see them means to undertake an expedition-like journey.

Of course, it is utter nonsense to include narwhals in a whale watching top ten, as it is almost impossible to meet them on a classic tourist’s travel. No whale lives further up north than the narwhal, as it prefers to stay at the edges of the pack ice. Even in summer they barely move south past 70° north. So you have to go really, really far up north to see them. More like an expedition than a trip.

The most famous and also most impressive photos of narwhals were taken by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, who grew up in the arctic Nunavut. Despite moving in those regions as comfortable as the local Inuit, it took him ten years and a microlight to get his shots of the narwhals in the cracked ice of Nunavut.

Whales from such remote areas should have no place in a whale watching blog, but then again you need unrealistic goals in life, too.

Narwhals are the unicorns of the sea. Fairy tale figures with one big difference: They do exist. However, they are very shy and reclusive. To this, their horn isn’t a horn but a tusk, breaking through the upper lip of almost all young male animals. It grows in a pointed spiral, weighs about 10 kilos and can get up to 3 meters long. Some animals have even two of those tusks; females usually don’t have one at all.

»With their tusk, narwhals can get information like temperature, saltiness and pressure of the water around them. Very useful, if you live at the edge of the Arctic’s sea ice and are constantly looking for freshly opened gashes in the ice.«

The use of the tusk is not completely explored, yet. A long time ago, the tusk was said to have magic healing powers, especially in Asia, where tiger testicles and shark fins are also believed to hold special powers. This made narwhals a lucrative prey, when selling them to Asian markets. In Europe, the narwhal tusk was just sold as a unicorn horn, probably at an even higher price than the ones in Asia. All that made narwhals – and especially their tusk – a prime target for whalers of the 19th and 20th century.

Today, the tusk is deemed a possible secondary sex characteristic: The longer the tusk, the higher the rank of the animal, resulting in more female mates during mating season. Also, the tusk is believed to be a sensory organ, acquiring information like temperature, saltiness and pressure of the water around them. Very useful, if you live at the edge of the Arctic’s sea ice and are constantly looking for freshly opened gashes in the ice. Apart from that, such a tusk may also come in very handy when trying to fend off a rival male.

The legendary tusk and living in the remoteness of the Arctic are a perfect combination, making the narwhal so fascinating and mysterious.

Credit

Illustration: Tobias Gehrt / studio2112.de
SIZE

Males 4 to 6 meters, females 3.5 to 5 meters. Maximum weight: 1.5 tons.

COLOUR

Grey to brown, speckled all over except for an all white belly. Young animals are grey, getting lighter with age. Old animals are almost white.

SHAPE

Little head with a visible melon, short snout. Compared to the body of the rather shapeless beluga, the narwhal is a lot more streamlined.

BLOW

Low, visually unimpressive and not too loud.

FIN

No fin but a well visible hump like the beluga.

FLUKE

With age, the fluke gets a more and more distinctive shape until it is almost heart-shaped.

BEHAVIOR

Very fast swimmer, shy, avoiding people. Quite acrobatic, frequent spyhopping.

DIVES

Narwhals can dive to depths of up to 1.500 meters. They usually stay underwater for 7 to 20 minutes.

NUMBERS

Unclear, approximately 80.000 animals worldwide, endangered in certain regions.

Checklist NARWHALS

Male narwhals have a two to three meter long tusk, which makes them unique and impossible to confuse.

Narwhals move very fast and unobtrusive on the surface. Usually, they can only be seen for a short time before diving for several minutes again. They only stay on the surface for most of the time when migrating. Then, the males occasionally raise their tusk out of the water when breathing.

Usually, narwhal groups are separated by age and sex: Females and their calves in one group, males and younger whales in another. The female groups usually stay closer to the coast.

Narwhals can be pretty acrobatic: They like splashing their flukes and flippers, look around a lot and occasionally raise their flukes, depending on the intended depth of the dive. They don’t jump, except for a little leap when resurfacing after a dive. Males sometimes fence with their tusks.

Where and when NARWHALS

Chances to meet narwhals are best during summer along the coast of Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet or Resolute Bay in arctic Canada and in Thule in the north of Greenland.

Watching narwhals is almost impossible for a regular tourist, as they are the whales with the northernmost habitat. They can be found in the whole northern Arctic Sea, but only near the pack ice line.

While moving north as far as possible during winter in smaller groups, they meet in spring and summer in larger numbers near the coast, usually in cold, deep bays and straits, as they follow the cracking ice. Their meetings can include hundreds and thousands of animals. Narwhals are usually rather true to their locations and also return to their grounds in spring, if the ice allows it.

There are big populations around Greenland and in the arctic waters of the Canadian province Nunavut. It’s practically impossible to watch whales there during winter: Too dark, too cold and the weather is too bad. In spring and summer, chances to meet narwhals are best along the coast of Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet or Resolute Bay in arctic Canada and in Thule in the north of Greenland as well as Umanak and Qeqertarsuaq in the west of Greenland. Visiting these places is like going on an expedition, though.