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Narwhals: The Tusked Divers Of The Deep

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Published on December 24th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Narwhals: The Tusked Divers Of The Deep


Narwhals Photo By Glenn Williams

A helical sword pierces the skin of water, slashing it  then slipping through before going deep under. It rises again, this time its holder breaches the surface. This mysterious toothed fencer belongs in another time, in the land of make-believe, myths and fantasy but it is here, it is real.

The Narwhal has to be one of the most bizarre of all the creatures to have lived on Earth. Fortunately for us, it is still alive, still amongst us.

A member of the toothed whales, or Odontocetes group, Narwhals possess perhaps the most remarkable tooth in the entire animal world. Growing two and a half metres (nine feet) in length males have an enormous left tooth protruding through their mouths.

When one looks at a male Narwhal it is very hard to get beyond their tooth and notice the rest of their body. In comparison to other whales, Narwhals are quite small. They are found exclusively in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.


The Strangest Of Appearances

The narwhal, named after the Norse word for corpse, is closely related to the Beluga Whale. Both the Narwhal and the Beluga whales are very similar in appearance, save the wrought tusk. They have short snouts and the two species are sometimes considered white in appearance. The Narwhal is a mixture of black and white in comparison to the relatively all-white, Beluga.

At birth Narwhal calves are much darker in appearance. As they grow older they become whiter in colour.

However, by far the most eye-catching feature of the Narwhal is its tremendously impressive tusk. The males possess the larger tusk which is an enormous tooth that protrudes up to three metres (ten feet). Interestingly, the tusk, which can weigh ten kilograms (22 lbs), is nearly always the left tooth.

Narwhals Photo By Ansgar Walk

On rare occasions, males have two tusks jutting out from the upper jaw. There is also one recorded account of a female with two tusks, something which is thought to be very rare indeed.

No one is exactly sure why Narwhals have such strange tusks. The general consensus is that it is probably related to sexual selection. Males with larger tusks are thought to be perceived by females as more dominant and therefore more desirable to mate with.

According to Wikipedia, this hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that Narwhals have very rarely been seen using their tusks for fighting, or breaking through sea ice – which are other ideas that have also been put forward as an explanation.

Narwhals: Diet And Diving

Narwhals feed on cod, shrimp, squid and halibut. They have very different feeding habits depending upon the seaon. In winter they hunt for food in deep waters while in summer they prefer relatively shallow water. Somewhat unusually they obtain the most energy from food during the winter period rather than during the summer.

What separates Narwhals from nearly every other mammal is their deep diving. During the winters they can reach depths of over 1,500 metres (5,000 feet). They have been observed diving over 15 times per day. Each dive typically lasts 25 minutes.

Narwhal Fluke Photo By Ansgar Walk

Narwhals’ Future

Currently, the population of Narwhals is thought to be very healthy. Their only predators, besides subsistence Inuit hunters, are killer whales and polar bears. Climate change however does pose a significant threat. Luckily, at least for now, we still have these magnificent animals, more akin to mythical creatures, with us.

Vital Statistics

  • Narwals are up to five metres (16 feet) in length.
  • The larger males can weigh up to 1,600 kilograms (3,500 lbs) with the females coming in around 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs).
  • Narwals are found in the cold Arctic waters off Canada and Greenland.
  • They are thought to live to be up 90 years old.

Recommended Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Whales: Kings Of The Cetaceans Blue Whale: The World’s True Giant, and Beluga Whale: The White Melon-headed Creature Of The Cold for further insight into Whales.

Among Giants: A Life With Whales is the fascinating story of underwater photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin. Full of stunning pictures and insightful commentary about the whales this book is stunning.

You can obtain Among Giants: A Life with Whales here from Amazon.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Among Giants: A Life with Whales from here.

For Canada: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

For Germany: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

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