By Alex Scott
Once upon a time, there was a cruel stepmother with long braids who hid food from her blind son. As punishment for her cruelty towards him, the son bound his stepmother with a rope and lashed her to a pod of whales passing by, which dragged her out to sea. As she drowned, she transformed into a gray whale, and her long braids became long tusks coming out of her head.
This was, as Inuit mythology tells, the creation of the narwhal and its signature tusk. The narwhal holds a special place in Inuit mythology and Inuit culture as a revered animal, and one look at it will tell you exactly why. This extraordinary mammal is really unlike any other in the animal kingdom.
The narwhal’s scientific name of Monodon monoceros or “one-tooth one-horn” is very apt in describing what exactly makes this whale so unique. Usually found only on male narwhals, the narwhal tusk is a single canine tooth on the left side of the upper jaw that grows in a helical spiral and can reach up to 10 feet in length. The tusk contains millions of nerve endings that the narwhal uses to learn about its Arctic environment, communicate with other narwhals, and occasionally stun prey. While the narwhal is certainly not the only mammals to have tusks, its distinct spiral shape gave it another use for another mammal: humans.
In Europe, long before the discovery of the narwhal came the story of the unicorn, a magical horse with a single horn growing out of its forehead. Starting with stories from the ancient Greeks, Europeans believed that the unicorn was real, and often drew and sculpted it as having a smooth straight horn. But when Scandinavian explorers in the 1500s discovered the narwhal in the Arctic Circle and brought its tusk back to Europe, suddenly the unicorn was depicted in paintings and sculptures with a swirling horn. These explorers and others after them charged exorbitant prices for the “unicorn horns,” which were believed to contain all sorts of mystical healing powers. It wasn’t until 1638 when a Danish naturalist named Ole Worm discovered a narwhal tusk with the skull still attached, proving that the horns were not in fact from a unicorn.
Luckily for the narwhals, the shrinking interest in their tusks allowed their population size to grow. Combined with the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the narwhal has managed to stay off the endangered species list, although it is still considered threatened by human actions. Under Greenland and Canada law, the Inuit are permitted to continue their thousands-year-old tradition of hunting the narwhal for its meat, skin, and blubber. In fact, the Inuit’s hunting of the narwhals is so sustainable that marine biologists often partner with narwhal hunters in order to study the whales.
The biggest obstacle for the narwhals, and for the Inuit that rely on them to survive, is climate change. Both the human communities and the whales have been adversely affected by the melting of the ice caps, and both will continue to suffer the consequences of inaction on climate change. The best thing we can do to ensure the survival of these magical creatures is to support the Inuit people, who have told stories about and cared for the narwhals for thousands of years.
Learn more about the Inuit people at www.itk.ca and about narwhals at naturecanada.ca/discover-nature/endangered-species/narwhal/.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.