Conversation overheard on an airplane:
“They don’t really exist!” said one. “No, no, I’ve seen photographs,” the other replied. “That’s just myths and legends, fairy tales!” the sceptic replied. “Google them!” the person retorted. “Oh that’s just photoshop!” Sometimes there’s just no convincing some people!
The closest many of us will ever come to a whale is in captivity in marine parks located just off a major highway or on a chartered whale watching boat, often with a throng of fellow, equally eager, binocular and camera clenching hopefuls.
From the massive slow moving Blue whale (the largest animal to ever inhabit our planet) to the small quirky, often referred to as “sea canaries,” the ghost-like Beluga, what is it that fascinates us about whales? What draws us to travel to the ends of the Earth to be in their presence? The reasons are as diverse as those who claim to respect and love them.
There are some who endanger their own lives by putting themselves between a harpoon gun and a whale. There are those whose joy and satisfaction lies in the fact that they (along with their family) will eat well and nutritiously after a successful hunt.
Given modern transportation and technology, whales are within reach of nearly everyone. When a particular animal becomes so omnipresent, so easy to access, some people feel like they know them, have a relationship with, and understand them. Time spent in Nature and the great outdoors is a vital prerequisite to such an assumption.
In his ground-breaking book, Last Child in the Woods Richard Louv talks about Nature-Deficit Disorder. He uses that expression to describe the growing gap between people (particularly children) and Nature. Our relationship with Nature, or lack of it, influences our lives.
Western science has taken its time understanding and appreciating that Indigenous people, not only in Canada but around the world, have, for the most part, a much deeper and natural understanding of Nature. That understanding is based on having a relationship – a true and very real connection, one which certain cultures, lives and languages are based.
Of all the whales that exist, one perhaps more than any other ignites more questions than answers. More than 30 years ago in his seminal book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote, “We know more about the rings on Saturn than we know about the Narwhal”.
True, many people today still regard with skepticism the Narwhals very existence but much has been learned over the past 30 years. Scientists from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds are increasingly joining to shed light on one of Nature’s most intriguing and fascinating animals.
Narwhals, known as Monodon Monoceros, which means “one tooth, one horn,” are small whales found only in Arctic waters. Adult males measure 4.6 metres (15 feet) and weigh 1134 kg (3,500 pounds). Adult females measure 4.0 metres (13 feet) and weigh 907 kg (2,000 pounds). Males reach sexual maturity at eight to nine years, and females reach sexual maturity at six to nine years of age. The gestation period is 15 months, and limited data suggest that the calving interval is one calf every three years. Calves (light grey in colour) measure 1.5 metres (five feet) and weigh 180 pounds at birth. Narwhals are thought to live to about 90 years old with over 100 being at the high end of mortality and 50 to 60 years being the suspected norm. Studies have determined their population to be around 200,000.
It’s a widely held belief that the name Narwhal came from the Old Norse for “corpse” and “whale,” nar + hval. The greyish colour and pattern of the narwhal’s skin has been likened to that of a drowned human corpse. In Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, Narwhals are referred to as “Qilalugag” which roughly translates to “The one that points to the sky”.
People eat and enjoy Narwhal. The skin, blubber, meat and cartilage are known to contain rich sources of Vitamin C, A, D and E. Pound per pound, narwhal skin has more Vitamin C than an orange. Unlike the Orca, neither the Narwhal, the Beluga nor the Bowhead have a pronounced dorsal fin. The Narwhal has a dorsal ridge. This ridge can be as much as two inches high and can extend around two to three feet down the spine of the whale. Evolutionary-wise, it makes sense for ice-dwelling whales such as these to not have a high dorsal fin.
For centuries, the Narwhal has fascinated and baffled. In ages past, Narwhal tusks were sold for many times their weight in gold and were said to possess magic (often healing) powers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a tusk valued at £10,000.00 — the cost of a castle! In Austrian folklore, it is said that Kaiser Karl the fifth paid off a national debt with only two tusks. What kept the price for these prized tusks so high? Their true origin and geographical whereabouts was kept secret. Centuries ago, those trading in this valuable commodity didn’t want the truth to emerge of a small tusked whale inhabiting the icy waters of the Arctic. Once the rich Arctic waters became known to many in Europe, it didn’t take long for the Narwhal, and its tusk, to move from the stories of myths and legends to general knowledge.
The Narwhal only has two teeth. In most females the teeth never erupt through the gum and remain embedded. In most adult males the right tooth remains embedded in the gum while the left tooth erupts through the front of the jaw and grows as an elongated tusk. Fetal narwhals do develop six pairs of upper teeth and two pairs of lower teeth but with no functional use, it is thought they will eventually become obsolete.
This tusk always grows in a counter-clockwise spiral and grows continuously. In some rare instances, the right tooth will also grow through the jaw. It is thought that one in five hundred has this remarkable double tusk. In female Narwhals, it is much rarer. The single tusk of the female Narwhal is usually slightly straighter than the male and appears to collect less algae, therefore appearing lighter in colour. On nearly all tusked Narwhal, a foot of tusk (or tooth) remains embedded in the skull. Tusks can grow as long as three metres.
When observed amongst dense pack ice, it is remarkable to witness just how easily tusked narwhals move and intermingle with others. As not all Narwhals have a tusk, it can’t be regarded as a necessity for life. Feeding mostly on halibut, Arctic cod and squid, narwhals without tusks appear to do just fine. With the ability to dive to incredible depths (1,500 metres or more) it was recently discovered that when the whales reach the sea bed in search of their favourite prey, they swim upside down.
The tusk is regarded by many as a sensory organ, to the extent that those individuals in possession of a tusk (or tusks) can detect barometric pressure and even the salinity levels in cold Arctic waters. While Narwhals are very much at home in and amongst ice, they still need air to breathe, so to venture under the sea ice without a clear “escape” would not make sense. As spring begins in the Arctic, rivers start to run (emptying fresh water into the sea) and snow on top of the sea ice melts, all helping to decrease the salinity level in the waters the Narwhals are found. Having the ability to judge salinity levels would appear to be a very useful migratory characteristic. Studies of live-captured Narwhals have shown that their heartrate will change based on the salinity level of liquids that the tusk is exposed to.
Most Narwhals spend their winters in the waters between Labrador and Greenland in the dense pack ice of Baffin Bay. Given the size of this area, the incredibly short daylight hours and the required logistics for study, little is known about the winter behaviour of Narwhals. In late winter, early spring, as daylight grows and the pack ice slowly relinquishes its grip on the ocean, they start to migrate North towards Northwest Greenland, Devon Island and the North Baffin region.
When commonly seen either from shore, a boat or the ice edge, Narwhals appear dark and when not moving, resemble a floating log. In the springtime, at the floe edge (where land-fast ice meets the open water) and again in summer when there is little or no ice, Narwhals can be seen “tusking”. Usually occurring when sea conditions are flat calm, individuals and groups alike can be seen waving their tusks. It’s rare to see any behaviour with the tusks that could be described as fighting. In most cases the waving is almost in slow motion. Small groups will come together and “raft up” side by side. After a few moments, tusks begin to be raised and laid gently on the back of another. The individuals will roll around each other. In some instances, four of five tusks can be raised at the same time and all at different angles. It appears that tusks are being gently rubbed on the back of others. Is this for the benefit of the animal with the tusk (perhaps cleaning) or for the benefit of the other (receiving a good back rub)? Observations have also shed light on the fact that often one animal will rub tusks with another tusk. As quickly as this unique behavioural display starts, it ends, perhaps with existing bonds renewed or new bonds created? We may never know.
In the last 30 years we have certainly learned a lot more about Narwhals. It is both gratifying and wonderful to know that mystery still exists in the Natural world beyond both our understanding and knowledge. The one that points to the sky isn’t about to let us know all its secrets and mystery just yet.