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The Mythical Narwhal

Arial photo of a flock of narwhals showing males with various size tusks, females without tusks, 2-year calf and 1-year old calf. Two narwhals are submerged just under the surface.
Narwhal flock with both males, females and calves.

The narwhal is a true Arctic species that lives most of its life in icy waters. The narwhal spends the summer in the ice-free Greenlandic fjords, but the rest of the year it lives in close proximity to sea ice. The narwhal can perform long migrations by using only cracks in the sea ice, and during these migrations can move high to the north. The highly specialized way of life, limited to areas north of the Arctic Circle, makes the narwhal the mammal with the world's northernmost distribution. Together with the Bowhead Whale and the Beluga, the narwhal is the only of 15 whale species that regularly occurs in Greenlandic waters, which also spend the winter here. The narwhal has been called the "Arctic 'mountain gorilla" because, like the mountain gorillas in Africa, it has a limited range, the world population is small, and the species is locally endangered. But the narwhal is not easy to see. It exhibits extremely shy behaviour and typically only shows little of its back when swimming in the surface. The narwhal has always been - and still is today -

one of the most important prey animals in Greenland.

The left-twisted tusk of the narwhal (Monodon monocerus) is the front tooth that from the age of 2-3 years, grows out of the left side of the upper lip of the animal.
Narhwal close-up showing the left-twisted tusk placed in the left side of the upper lop.

A horned whale

The narwhal is one of the whale species in the world, where the behaviour and migrations are least known, and one of the most mythical and legendary animal species in the Arctic. At the same time, the narwhal is one of the most unusual-looking marine mammals, with its long, twisted tusk. Almost like being taken out of an fairy-tale, the males are equipped with a lance that cuts through the water as it swims. The left-twisted tusk is in fact a front tooth that from the animal is 2-3 years old, grows out of the left side of the upper lip. In very rare cases, both front teeth develop in the upper mouth, creating a narwhal with a double tusk.

It is no wonder that the narwhal's special tusk has created many speculations about the tooth's purpose amongst both Inuit and Westerners. For example, in the 17th century, narwhal teeth were traded as horns from the fabled unicorn. The horns were attributed medicinal properties and were an expensive commodity among Europe's upper class.

Through the ages, theories have emerged about the function of the narwhal's distinctive tusk. It has been suggested that the tooth acts as a spear that can pierce prey, and that the tooth is a tool used to dig into the sandy bottom with. The tooth has also been proposed as a weapon against predators, and as an effective tool to break through the sea ice when whales must get up and draw air in ice-filled areas. It has even been suggested as a rudder or as a means of breathing. Recent studies have shown that the narwhal's tusk contains millions of nerve pathways, which has provided a breeding ground for the theory of a super-sensitive sensory organ. However, it is most likely that the narwhal's tusk is associated with sexual selection. Just like the reindeer's large antlers or the peacock's extreme tail, the tooth is used to impress the females and deter other males. Only a male who has good genes, is strong and is in good condition can develop a large tooth and he will be chosen by the females during the mating season.

Male Narwhals (Monodon monocerus) have long tusks up to 3-meter long. This flock of six males was photographed from airplane during scientific survey in Melville Bay, Greenland.
A flock of male Narwhals with long tusks, Melville Bay, West Greenland

The Master Diver

The female narwhal grows up to 4 meters long and can weigh up to 1000 kg. The male becomes somewhat larger and can reach a weight of 1800 kg and a length of 5 meters. In addition, the characteristic tusk that normally only occurs in the male and can have a length of 2-3 meters with a weight of more than 12 kg.

The food is found at deep depths and consists mostly of fish (especially halibut and cod) and squid, which are usually retrieved at several hundred meters. However, the narwhal can dive to depths of less than 1800 meters! A power performance with dives at such extreme depths requires several special physiological adaptations in the narwhal. The deepest dives can last for more than 25 minutes and the capacity to hold the breath for such a long is only possible because the narwhal's blood has a very high content of the oxygen-binding protein, hemoglobin. In addition, the muscle structure contains high concentrations of another oxygen-binding protein, myoglobin, which allows it to hold its breath for a long time. Compared to land mammals, whales generally have twice as much blood per kilogram of body weight, and the whales' blood can contain ten times as much oxygen. This relationship is particularly visible when looking at meat from the narwhal, which is extremely dark red - yes, almost black! The taste of the meat is at the same time characteristic with a touch of iron caused by the high blood content.

When diving at such extreme depths another challenge arises. The pressure increases exponentially with depth, and already at a few hundred meters, the pressure is so great that it requires special anatomical adjustments to be able to stay here even for a short time. The narwhal's ribs would simply be pressed and injure the animal if not for the fact that the narwhal has developed an extremely flexible chest that can adapt with pressure

A group of narwhals dives from the surface. Melville bay, Greenland.
Narwhals can dive extremely deep – up to 1800 meters.

Greenland Narwhal hunt

In Greenland, the narwhal has always been an important animal for consumption. In earlier times, when Inuit lived a more nomadic life, the seasonal occurrence of the narwhal has been decisive for the location of the settlement. At the same time, the narwhal has on optimal body size in relation to what can be hunted with the low-tech tools of the time. It was possible for a single man in a kayak to hunt and kill a narwhal. A caught narwhal meant large amounts of meat, blubber, bones and tusks for tools for the settlements. Mattak (the whale's skin plus the outer layer of lard) is rich in vitamin C and has historically been an important source in Greenland for the vital vitamin in a world without fruits and vegetables.

Today, the narwhal is still among the most important hunted animals, especially in the outer districts of Greenland. The narwhal provides both large amounts of meat and the valuable tusk can be converted into cash. Most important, however, is mattak, which in Greenland is considered a great delicacy. Mattak is purchased locally, frozen and then distributed to the rest of Greenland. Mattak is a coveted eatery, and the price per kilo in the capital Nuuk can reach staggering prices. As the prices of sealskins have fallen dramatically, the narwhal as a game animal has become more important. For the hunters in the Thule and Scoresbysund areas, mattak from narwhal is almost the sole income that can be converted into cash. Today, in the hunting economy, there is an increasing need for cash for equipment such as dinghies, outboard motors, snowmobiles and the like, and thus there is increased attention around the narwhal, where the income from mattak can be crucial locally.

Hunter from Scoresbysund, East Greenland with Narwhal tusk.
The mattak (skin and blubber) and tusk is an import source of income in Greenland.

The illusive Narwhal

The narwhal exhibits an extremely shy behaviour! In the event of noise - in particular, noise from a boat engine - it flees or dives, even at long distances to the source of noise. The species' strong reaction to noise not only makes the narwhal difficult to see and hunt, but also vulnerable in connection with ship traffic and seismic surveys for oil exploration, where sound waves are fired under the sea surface.

The narwhal's shy behaviour makes special demands during the hunting and getting close to a narwhal is both time consuming and requires special skills. In the Thule area, the narwhals follow the extent of the ice edge. As the ice edge moves from east to west through the spring months, the whales follow. In March to May, the ice edge lies far west of Qaanaaq, and to get to the narwhals, the hunters use dog sleds to the ice edge and camp there for long periods. This is where the waiting game begins! No one knows when the whales will show up - or if they will show up at all. Typically, the hunters will take turns keeping an eye out for the whales throughout the day so that the chance of hunting is not missed. If the whales get close to the ice edge, the kayak is inserted into the water and the hunter sits patiently waiting for the right moment. Typically, in a kayak, you will try to approach the narwhal from behind to throw your harpoon. This requires mastering the kayak to perfection, as both high speed is needed as well as good balance to throw the harpoon. The narrow traditional kayak is almost silent in the water, giving the hunter an opportunity to get close to the narwhal, which would be impossible in a boat with a noisy outboard motor.

A male and a female Narwhal blows bobbles just beneath the water surface in the North Water polynya in Greenland.
Narwhals close to the water surface.


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