Narwhal Facts

The narwhal whale can be found swimming in the Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic waters year round.

This whale belongs to the toothed whale suborder and is part of the cetacean species which also includes dolphins and porpoises.

The name “Narwhal” comes from the old norse word nar, which means “corpse like” describing its grayish molted coloring which resembles the corpse of drowned sailors.

They’ve also gone by the names Monodon monoceros (one-toothed) and Qilalugaq qernartaq (the one that points to the sky).

Physical Characteristics

The narwhal whale is unique among the whale species and has a long ivory tusk extending from the upper left side of its jaw which measures 7 – 10 feet in length.

The females tusk is shorter than the males tusk and on very rare occasions both species may grow a second tusk.

At birth these whales appear their darkest with molted black – greyish coloring and white spotted patterns.

As they grow older their dark coloring begins to lightens.

They can grow to be 13 -20 ft. long and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds.

Diet

Narwhals have a relatively small diet.

These whales can be found hunting flatfish, cod, shrimp, Gonatus squid and other forms of benthic prey.

They have been known to make some of the deepest dives of any marine mammal and can dive to depths of nearly 5,000 feet when in search of food.

Long dives can last as much as 25 minutes.

Migration

Narwhals live in or near the Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic waters throughout the year.

In many cases they can be seen swimming in pods of 15 – 20, although numbers can reach in the thousands during migration periods.

They follow the distribution of ice and move towards coastal waters during the warmer months.

During the fall and winter they migrate away from coastal waters and towards the off shore in order to avoid being trapped by ice.

In the winter when large areas of water are frozen over, small groups of narwhal may be found swimming in locations containing only 5% open water.

Breeding

The average gestation period (the period from conception to birth) for female narwhals is 14 – 15 months.

Mating typically occurs during the spring.

Male narwhals generally reach maturity between 8 – 10 years of age while females reach maturity between 4 - 7 years.

Limited information suggests that females bare offspring once every 3 years.

The tusks are also considered to play a possible role in mating as some narwhals have been observed crossing tusks which appear to mimic fencing behavior.

Some whales have also been found with broken tusks which may indicate fighting or aggressive behavior.

The rapid growth of their tusks which occurs during sexual maturity also suggests that their tusks likely play a large role during mating season.

Endangered Status

The narwhal is currently considered a stable species, however due to the whales geographically narrow habitat it is considered vulnerable to changes in the climate.

These whales inhibit the Arctic ocean year round and move from coastal to off shore locations between migration periods.

They are often hunted in Canada and Greenland for their ivory tusks.

The current estimated population for narwhal is 25,000 – 45,000.

10 Astonishing narwhal facts

  1. Due to the narwhal’s large ivory tusk these marine mammal is often referred to as the unicorns of the sea.
  2. The narwhal makes up one of around 80 known species of cetacea which include all species of whale, dolphin and porpoise.
  3. Most narwhal’s grow a single large tusk from the upper left side of their jaw, however around one in 500 males are known to grow a second large tusk from the right side of its upper jaw.
  4. A narwhal’s tusk is is believed to a sexual characteristic that is used to attract a mating partner of the opposite sex. It has also been observed being used to show dominance among males during mating season as they can be seen fencing or crossing tusks against one another during competitive mating periods.
  5. Reaching depths in excess of 5,000 ft. these animals are known to make one of the deepest dives of all marine mammals.
  6. Despite their small size these marine mammals can be found swimming in the cold/frozen Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic waters throughout the year.
  7. Although narwhal’s generally stay in groups of 20 or less in the summer groups may gather together and form large aggregations of 500 – 1000 narwhal’s are more.
  8. Because the narwhal is a marine mammal it is warm-blooded, produces milk, gives birth to its young and breathes air.
  9. Unlike other toothed whales the narwhal’s only teeth are the tusks that it grows.
  10. As a comparison the narwhal is about the same size of an adult beluga whale (minus the tusk).