The Whales

narwhal whale

The most distinctive feature of the narwhal is its tusk, which may grow to 9 feet (3 meters) long.  The narwhal has only two teeth.  In most females the teeth never erupt through the gum. 

In most adult males the right tooth remains embedded in the gum while the left tooth erupts through the front of the jaw and grows as an elongated tusk.  The tusk always grows with a counter clockwise spiral (as the Narwhal sees it) and grows continuously, replacing wear.

The narwhal tusk has been valued for many years.  Northern traders sold it as a unicorn horn for more than its weight in gold in the middle ages.  It was also sold as a cure for epilepsy, to strengthen the heart, and as a buffer against poisons. 

Narwhal whale 

11.5" Long x 3" High
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A bejeweled tusk was among the most prized possessions of Elizabeth I, queen of England. (It was worth the prize of a castle!) Not until 1648 were the tusk and the narwhal associated when a stranded specimen was found and examined in the British Isles. 

Adult narwhals measure 15 feet (4.6 meters) long and weigh 3,500 lbs (1,590 kg).  A big chunk of that weight is the 4” (10 cm) of blubber they have, which enables them to live in extremely cold arctic water.  They feed in deep bays and inlets, where they find halibut, cod and shrimp, diving sometime as deep as 4,500 feet (1,280 meters) to catch them. 

Narwhals are usually found in groups of 20-30 but during migration (for mating & calving) groups may be as large as 2,000.  Becoming trapped in forming ice is not uncommon. In Greenland such entrapment is called “savssat”.  In the winter of 1914-1915 over 1,000 narwhal died in a savssat.  Other dangers are attacks by Orcas, walruses, and polar bears. 

Narwhal are important to many Eskimo cultures; the chewy skin is an important source of vitamin C called “muk tuk” by the indigenous people.  Current population is thought to be about 50,000 and the rate of the kill is probably unsustainable.  And the threat to habitat by global warming looms large in their future.




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