Europe’s “unicorn party” was officially over in 1638, when Danish scholar Ole Wurn proved that the incredible alicorns making a fortune were not from the mythical beast, but a small-ish Arctic porpoise with blue-cheese speckles. It’s no less magical, though.
For instance, its tusk can still turn people’s eyes into pound signs. Until Wurn’s reveal it was worth ten times its weight in gold, with Elizabeth I paying the equivalent of £1.5 million for one. Nowadays, a “double” tusk can fetch £25,000, although selling is tightly controlled and only permitted through the indigenous Inuit. And, if some are to be believed, narwhal meat also tastes like magic. Well, if by that you mean “hazelnut”.
The skin, or maktaq in Inuktitut, can be boiled or fried, and in the fruitless freezer of the Arctic it’s a prime source of vitamin C. The Inuit aren’t the only ones with a taste for tuugaalik; polar bears, orcas, and even walruses partake of its strangely black flesh.
So you can’t blame the “sea unicorn” for being elusive. In the 1990s, researchers burned through tracking devices because the narwhals dived so deep – up to 1800m/5,905ft – that the water pressure destroyed them. They’re also adept at hiding in winter.
The “hell” in Dante’s Inferno is frozen from Satan’s breath, and if you were a narwhal you’d know why. Compared to ice-free summer residence Baffin Bay, the ice-packed Baffin-Bay-Davis Strait is a freezing, pitch dark and shifting labyrinth, where you’re either moving or forever trapped. You also risk death every half an hour when looking for an air hole, because a hungry polar bear or hunter will likely greet you at the top. Too far outside the ice, and it’s a pack of lip-licking orcas on your tail, with only their dorsal fins barring entry. It’s not all bad in the labyrinth though, because you might find some sex now and again.
Sparring for females is one of the many theories behind the narwhal’s multi-purpose tooth-tusk, which has 6 million nerve endings and provides some sort of sensory feedback. Some males even have two, but they can’t be essential because 97% of females and a minority of males get by without one. Neither does it affect diet, with both sexes slurping squid, halibut, cod and shrimp with equal delight. However, pods do tend to be separated by sex, as well as age judging from their colours, with older members white and youthful members a speckled grey.
According to Inuit legend, all whales were white before the narwhal, which came from an evil mother who drowned after her blind son tied her to a harpooned whale, her hair and the rope forming the long tusk. If that wasn’t morbid enough, its name means “corpse whale”, because Norse sailors thought it looked like a body. Despite this, it remains a vital part of Inuit culture and deserves protection from thinning sea ice, pollution and over-hunting. It’s had enough bad luck, but offering it a horseshoe probably wouldn’t go down too well.
Latin: Monodon monoceros
What? Marine mammal with a unicorn horn
Where? Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. It’s thought most of the world’s population, 90,000 or so, make their home between Canada and Greenland
How big? Males up 5.4 m/17 ft, plus horn of about 3 m/9 ft, females up to 4.9 m /16 ft.
Endangered? Not yet, but almost, mainly due to climate change and melting sea ice, as well as disruption from the oil and shipping industries. There’s also concern about over-hunting, as population estimates are difficult.
Probable motto: Everything eats me, I’m the apple of the Arctic sea.
They sound cool. Do they need my help at all?
Yes – it’s a constant tight rope between conservation and sustainable, indigenous ways of life, as well as climate change, oil, and the shipping industry. Too bad the narwhal’s horn isn’t that multi-purpose.
You can help the WWF with their narwhal research and monitoring, as well as donate to protect the Arctic as a whole.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
BEC Crew. 2017. “This never-before-seen footage reveals the violent purpose of the narwhal’s tusk“. Science Alert.
Coates, Ashley. 2017. “The other ivory trade: Narwhal, walrus, and…mammoth“. The Independent.
Deutsch, James. 2017. “How the narwhal got its tusk“. Smithsonian.com.
Laidre, Kristin. 2015. “Uncovering the secrets & behaviors of narwhals & polar bears“. Pacific Science Center.
Marcoux, Marianne. 2008. “Social behaviour, vocalization and conservation of narwhals“.
Marcoux, Marianne. 2011. “Narwhal communication and grouping behaviour: a case study in social cetacean research and monitoring“.
“Narwhal“. 2010. National Geographic.
“Narwhal whales“. No date. Alaska Fisheries Science Center: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
“Narwhals: Unicorns of the sea“. No date. WWF Canada.
Rogers, Kara. 2011. “The legend and mystery of the narwhal“. Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog.
Schmidt, Steven. 2017. “Stress-induced ‘cardiac-freeze’ response puts narwhals in peril amid warmer, more trafficked waters“. Public Radio International.
Tucker, Abigail. 2009. “In search of the mysterious narwhal“. Smithsonian.com.
“Uncover narwhal secrets“. No date. WWF.
Zimmer, Carl. 2014. “The mystery of the sea unicorn“. National Geographic.
Featured image credit: JenDeVos