Unicorns of the seaOver the summer months, the Canadian Arctic is home for around 90% of the world’s narwhal population. These whales congregate in northern Hudson Bay and as far North as Ellesmere Island to feed and rear their young.
In the winter, the majority of the world’s narwhals travel to Baffin Bay-Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland. There, they will spend up to seven months under almost complete sea ice cover. Cracks in the ice allow them to breathe, after dives to feed, which can be over 1.5 kilometres deep.
Long shrouded in mystery, the narwhal is famous for the long ivory tusk that spirals counter-clockwise up to 9 feet in length from the head of adult males. In more rare cases, a narwhal may grow two tusks.
The tusk — once thought to have magical properties — is a modified tooth in the upper left side of the jaw. Recent research suggests the tusk has some remarkable sensory capabilities. There are millions of nerve endings in each tusk that may help locate food. In 2017, WWF-Canada and partners captured a new observation on film. Narwhals were seen stunning fish before eating them.
Climate change: The Arctic is warming two times the rate of the rest of the world, and that puts ice-dependent species like the narwhal at risk of decline. Sea ice, which helps moderate global climate, has been shrinking by about 13.4% per decade. Narwhals, which depend on sea ice to both hunt and evade predators, have been identified as the Arctic marine mammal most sensitive to the effects of climate change.
Underwater noise: Narwhals have been known to move away from their calving and feeding areas when large ships move in. Based on their sensitivity to ship noise and the high degree of overlap between habitat and potential Arctic shipping routes, Narwhal have been identified as the Arctic marine mammal most threatened by shipping.
Through our Arctic Species Conservation Fund, we support narwhal tagging and research in Nunavut. We also fund the use of non-invasive research techniques, including the use of aerial drones, underwater microphones and aerial survey photo analyses. Through this research, we are learning more about distribution, behaviour and the impacts of underwater noise on the whale. The research, supported by our fund, informs concrete actions to safeguard the species.
What WWF is doing
We also advocate for a network of marine protected areas where human activities, such as oil and gas development, are not permitted. In a changing Arctic, it’s critical that we provide safe havens for the narwhal.
At a glance
Inuktitut Name: Tuugaalik
Adult Weight: Up to 4200 pounds
Diet: Greenland halibut, Arctic and polar cod, squid and shrimp
Population: Around 170,000 worldwide
Location: Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia
Development and marine mammals
See how shipping routes and development overlap with the native range for different marine mammals in the Arctic.
Explore the map