Narwhals are one of the rarest and most unique whales on the planet Earth. They are also vastly mysterious and tend to capture the imaginations of many people, especially those fascinated with the Arctic. The distinct spiraled tusk or tooth that protrudes from the whales upper jaw lends to their enduring mythology. The tusk can grow up to 10 feet and some Narwhals will even sprout two tusks. These animals can weigh up to 4,200 pounds and grow to 17 feet in length. The photo below by Paul Nicklen for National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund provides a great look at the Narwhal’s tooth.
The Narwhal population is currently at more than 80,000 worldwide. The majority are found in Atlantic and Russian Arctic sea waters. Smaller populations dwell in Greenland and Norwegian waters. In summer they migrate in pods of 10-100 whales closer to shorelines and in winter they swim farther out to sea and live under sea ice, surfacing in open leads of water. Their preference is to stay at the surface but Narwhals can dive up to 5,000 feet. They feed wherever they can find krill, fish or squid in the cold northern waters.
Narwhals communicate through various trills, clicks and squeals. Males will often cross tusks in behavior known as “tusking“. Scientists are researching this behavior trying to distinguish whether it’s another form of communication, sexual display or friendly contact. Females become pregnant between March and May and have a gestation period of up to 16 months giving birth to a single calf. Calving every three years, females will nurse for a year or more.
The environmental conditions in which narwhals exist are truly awesome in that they require uncanny survival traits. Existing in the extreme cold and icy regions takes a unique genetic make-up. Narwhals are also being threatened by increasing oil and gas exploration in their native waters. All this exploration leads to more ocean shipping traffic as well. These factors cause noise pollution in the dark ocean waters where narwhals and other marine mammals rely on quietness to communicate with each other and locate food sources. This relatively new and growing threat could lead to dire consequences for many species. For more information check out this World Wildlife Fund site. This WWF initiative helps raise awareness of the noise pollution affects and address the threats to Narwhals and other whales and marine mammals.