Narwhal, the Unicorn of the Sea

The word “narwhal” is an old Norwegian name that means corpse whale. Nár in ancient Norse means corpse and for the narwhal, is a reference to the grey, mottled skin that Norwegians thought resembled a drowned sailor.

One unique feature about a narwhal is that an upper left canine tooth grows upwards of three meters (nine feet) in length. Medieval hunters sold narwhal tusks to unknowing European customers as unicorn horns, which were used to cure several diseases and thought to neutralize poisons.

A Canadian Inuit legend says that the narwhal tusk was created when a woman with a harpoon rope fastened to her waist was pulled into the sea water by a huge narwhal. The hair that she was wearing in a twisted fashion turned into the spiral narwhal tusk seen today.

Dr. Martin Nweeia, a dentist from Sharon, Connecticut and clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Medicine, led several international field study expeditions on narwhal research and discovered that the tusk of this whale contains around 10 million nerve endings in the outer surface, enabling the narwhal to possess an amazing sensory device. Slight changes in temperature and pressure give narwhal tusks a keen sense of when sea ice is about to freeze over, thereby telling them about vital environmental survival information.

Narwhals are medium in size, ranging from males that are up to 5.4 meters (17 feet, 9 inches) to females that grow to be 4.9 meters (16 feet) in length. Males weigh as much as 1,900 kilograms (4,190 pounds) and females can weigh up to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds). It’s estimated that narwhals can live to be 15-20 years old, with females maturing in five to eight years and males maturing in 12-16 years. The maximum life of a narwhal is 50 years.

Halibut, flounder, cod, squid and shrimp make up a narwhal’s diet. These carnivorous creatures find food at the edge of ice flows. They like to collect in groups of five to 10 and possess a varied and diverse vocabulary of clicks, whistles and squeaks to communicate with one another.

The worldwide narwhal population is estimated to be 80,000. Narwhals primarily live around Greenland, in northeast Canada and to the northern coast of Scandinavian countries and Russia. Narwhal skin, named “maktaq” is eaten raw and boiled by the Canadian Inuit. For arctic native cultures, narwhal is a vital source of vitamin C, which is otherwise hard to obtain. It is also fed to sled dogs.

Narwhal tusks are important sources of ivory used by Inuit artists to make intricate carvings. Complete narwhal tusks sell for high prices. One in every 300 narwhal forms double tusks. Narwhal skulls with two tusks sell for $30,000 to $50,000, or more.