Native Knowledge of the Narwhal

Narwhals with their long unicorn-like tusks.
Narwhals usually live in groups of two to ten and form slow-moving herds. (NIST/Glenn Williams)

The narwhal is an elusive mammal. During the winter months they feed in the deep waters between Baffin Island and Greenland north of the Arctic Circle, far away from human eyes. In the summer, though they come close to shore, they are never far from ice floes. Their lifestyle makes it particularly difficult for scientists trying to study them, and for that reason we know very little about how they live.

But the Inuit have spent generations observing the ways of the narwhal, and through their amassed knowledge we can glean a wealth of information. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Inuit hunters have relied on narwhal as an essential source of food, blubber, and raw materials. The maqtaaq, the Inuit word for the inner skin and outer blubber, is not only a delicacy but provides the Inuit people with essential vitamins and nutrients. 

Every spring small groups of Inuit travel to the water’s edge to partake in narwhal hunts. As the ice breaks up and the narwhal travel close to shore, the Inuit spend days in pursuit of the whales. Those with day jobs may spend five to six hours after work looking for narwhals. The success of a hunt is no longer a matter of eating or starving—but nevertheless narwhals contribute needed food and resources in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Inuit have a heightened understanding of the lives of narwhals and have made many contributions to the study of this still-mysterious creature.  Here, we outline a few revelations that we would never have known but for the Inuit. 

Appearances are Deceptive
Counting a whale population is no easy task. A spotter in a small plane must fly over the water and count every single individual, even in the presence of ice floes that obstruct a clear view. This counting system assumes that when narwhals are found, all those in the vicinity are at the surface where their grey or speckled backs can be seen from up above. For much of recent history, the Davis Strait population was counted this way and listed at around 80,000 individuals. The Inuit, however, know that only a fraction of a narwhal pod (social group) will hang out near the surface. Narwhals actually travel together at various depths, meaning that the presence of some narwhals swimming at the surface hints at a larger number hidden below. Taking this information into account, scientists now list the population at 173,000 individuals. 

They have Complex Social Systems
It is well known that narwhals live and travel in pods based upon their sex. Females and their young travel together while the males travel together in separate pods. But the Inuit recognize that within the male pods each individual has a designated role. The adult males lead the migrations while the older males follow, and the young males swim in the periphery and act as scouts, looking for danger and protecting the pod. Some Inuit even speak of the Qirnajuktat, or the black ones. These are male narwhals with black coloring, above average body size, and an extra-long tusk. According to Cornelius Nutarak of Pond Inlet, “the fully mature ones, those that appear the oldest, do not play as much, and their skin is much lighter.”

Different Regions, Different Whales
For the Inuit, not all narwhals are the same. Depending upon where the narwhal lives it will not only look different but also act different. Inuit can accurately distinguish a Canadian narwhal from a Greenlandic narwhal based upon the whale’s body shape, color, and behavior. A Canadian narwhal has a slender and tapered body and is usually curious. Greenlandic narwhals, however, have a much bulkier head and tend to be shy and evasive. 

Shedding Skin
In secluded bays during the summertime narwhals slough off their old, outer skin in an annual molt. Scientists have observed molting in beluga whales, the narwhal’s closest relative, but have never observed narwhals doing the same. It is such a rare event that only three out of 63 interviewed Inuit hunters had ever observed molting. 

Rasmus Avike of Qaanaaq in northwest Greenland was one of the few to see a narwhal molt. “I only saw this one time. I was paddling next to a narwhal when a thin, gauze-like layer of white came off the whale and into the surrounding water. Within a short time, the thin white layer disappeared. I realized that this was the molting of the narwhal.”

March 2020