Some people still question if narwhals – the world’s most northernmost whale with its seven-foot long spiral tusk - still exist. They do – although the mysterious creatures are facing an uncertain future as their icy world melts because of climate change.
Natural History writer Todd McLeish goes deep into the narwhal – from its mythology to biology in Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. McLeish will be speaking on March 2 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History at 2 p.m. and on March 8 at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge at 3 p.m. We caught up with him recently to learn more about the “sea unicorn.
Green Blog: What made you choose to write about Narwhals?
Todd McLeish: loved frogs and turtles as a kid, and I remember thumbing through the encyclopedia when I was about 9 and seeing a picture of a narwhal. It’s been something I’ve been curious about ever since. After writing a couple of books about rare New England wildlife, I was looking for an animal far from our area that I could write about, and I was reminded of my interest in the narwhal. It has so many interesting angles to pursue — the purpose of the tusk, its connection to the unicorn myth, climate change, subsistence hunting, and more — it was the perfect subject.
GB: You describe an amazing scene of Narwhals when you were visiting Baffin Island. Tell us about it.
TM: We were camped on a beach high above the Arctic Circle, and while it was midnight, the sun was still shining. We awoke to heavy breathing outside our tent, and it was a group of narwhals that were just 30 yards from shore with their tusks pointing skyward, as if they were jousting. We stood for an hour watching this amazing display of social behaviors while we were wearing nothing but our long underwear in 35 degree temperatures, not wanting to take the time to put on warm clothes because we didn’t want to miss anything. I’ll never forget that moment.
GB: What do Narwhals sound like underwater/above water?
TM: Above the water you mostly hear their breathing as they surface, which sounds somewhat like most other whales you might see on a whale watch here in New England, though one biologist described the sound of a distant pod of narwhals approaching as a herd of farting elephants. But underwater, listening through hydrophones, they make all sorts of bizarre barnyard noises — mooing, creaky doors, sheep-like sounds, clicking. Some of it is probably for communication, some of it is from their echolocation.
GB: How is there population doing?
TM: By most accounts, their population is doing rather well at the moment. The best guess is that there are about 80,000 narwhals living around the islands in the eastern Canadian Arctic and along the coast of Greenland.
GB: Is climate change already affecting Narwhal’s and if so how?
TM: It is difficult to tell whether climate change is affecting them yet, but biologists claim narwhals and polar bears are the Arctic species most vulnerable to climate change. Narwhals aren’t very flexible in terms of their habitat requirements or the food they eat, so they’ll have a hard time adapting to changing environmental conditions. Plus, as Arctic ice retreats, it will open up even greater vulnerabilities — their chief predator, killer whales, will have greater access to narwhal habitat, commercial fishing will expand in direct competition for the narwhal’s preferred foods, oil and gas exploration will bring with it threats of oil spills and noises that will disturb them, and diseases and parasites that they aren’t used to could move northward from the south. While narwhals seem to be doing well now, their future is precarious.
GB: What was the most difficult part of researching or writing the book?
TM: No doubt, the hardest part for me was spending time in an Inuit hunting camp in northern Greenland where I learned about the importance narwhals play in Inuit culture. I’m a wildlife lover who wants to protect threatened species, so watching narwhals be hunted and then carved up for food was emotionally difficult for me to watch. But the Inuit have few other options for food, and the whales provide so many important nutrients that there is no heart disease in the region. So as challenging as it was for me to watch, I learned to understand and accept the practice as necessary in some Arctic communities.
GB: What is the narwhal’s link to the unicorn myth?
TM: For centuries, early Arctic explorers would acquire narwhal tusks from the Inuit and sell them in Europe as unicorn horns, which were supposed to have healing properties. The story goes that if you drank from a cup made from a unicorn horn, you wouldn’t get sick, so all the royal families acquired tusks and the Catholic Church even ground them up into powder to put in the sacramental wine to heal their parishioners. When it was finally revealed that the tusks came from a whale, it reinforced the belief in unicorns because people claimed that if a sea unicorn existed then a terrestrial unicorn must also exist.
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