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The Legendary Narwhal

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The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. {Jules Verne}

Winter Weather Not Fit for Man nor Beast? Look at the Narwhal!

It is February 15, 2015, and New England is being hit again by snow, below zero temperatures and hurricane force winds. Boston and other coastal cities are struggling to cope with more snow and depleted snow removal budgets. It would appear that all life needs to retreat to someplace warm and hunker out yet another round of winter weather here in the Northeast.

But there are amazing creatures that thrive in the very kind of weather and climate that causes us, humans, to cringe and run for cover. In the waters north of  New England, and all the way to the top of the blue marble we call home, there is one sea creature who is superbly made to withstand life in the icy waters of the extreme Northern Atlantic and under the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean: the narwhal.

Today is World Whale Day, and to celebrate the occasion, and to keep with our winter weather theme, let’s get up close and personal with this incredible, cold-loving whale.

 

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The “Unicorn of the Sea” ~ the Narwhal

The narwhal, Monodon monoceros, the only living relative of the beluga whale, is a year-round resident of the frigid waters of the Arctic, off the coasts of Canada, Russia and Greenland. Its unique single tusk, which is really a tooth, makes the male narwhal readily identifiable by even the littlest whale enthusiasts. This tusk grows from 7’ to 10’ long, and points slightly upward, giving the narwhal another one of its names: Qilalugaq qernartaq (in Inuit, “the one that points to the sky”) {Female narwhals sport a much shorter tusk}. Scientists don’t really know why the narwhal has this long tusk, so it’s been the subject of much speculation and legend.

This mid-sized whale can grow to nearly 20 feet in length, and an adult male, at maturity, can weigh nearly two tons.

 

http://www.simplesciencestrategies.com narwhals

Narwhal range and distribution. Hashed area represents winter range; dark area represents summer range. {Image credit: (c) Wikipedia, 2015}

 

Being a toothed-whale, narwhals are meat-eaters, dining on flatfish, cod, shrimp, squid and other ocean life that lives deep in the Arctic Ocean. While feeding, narwhals have demonstrated the ability to dive up to 5000 feet below the ocean surface, and remain submerged for up to 25 minutes without surfacing for a breath. Like many other sea mammals, the narwhal uses echolocation to find prey while hunting.

Like other whales, narwhals use a variety of clicks and calls to communicate with one another. As you can imagine, their icy home, deep-diving habits, and relative rareness make it hard for us to know a lot about the narwhal’s calls. Fortunately, there are marine scientists who specialize in the study of this rare Arctic resident. The Narwhal News Network recorded this audio clip of a pod of narwhals at night, off the coast of Greenland, on February 9, 2011:

 

http://simplesciencestrategies.com narwhals

A pod of narwhals, off the coast of Greenland in winter. {Click image to hear audio clip of narwhal communication, from the Narwhal News Network, February 9, 2011}

 

The Narwhal in Legend and Folklore

The name narwhal, itself, is an Old Norse word that means “corpse-like,” in reference to the mottled gray, white and black fur covering the whale’s body. It is said that the Vikings, a legendary sea-faring people, thought that the skin and shape of the narwhal’s body resembled the bloated, decaying body of sailors who had met their demise in the icy deep. Not a pretty picture…

Their unusual appearance has caused the narwhal to be the center of some interesting folktales and ideas over the centuries. Their horns have washed up on the shores of lands in the far North, adding credence to legends of unicorns and “proof” of their existence. Royalty over the centuries have paid small fortunes for these horns, although trade of these is now illegal in most lands.

Creatures that resemble narwhals have appeared in woodcuts and early maps, among the “sea monsters” that were said to inhabit the unknown waters to the west of Europe, and the narwhal has been proposed as one possible identify of the “leviathan” mentioned in the Bible.  This mysterious whale is featured in the following passage from Jules Verne’s science fiction novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea:

“Captain Farragut was a good seaman, worthy of the frigate he commanded. His vessel and he were one. He was the soul of it. On the question of the monster there was no doubt in his mind, and he would not allow the existence of the animal to be disputed on board. He believed in it, as certain good women believe in the leviathan — by faith, not by reason. The monster did exist, and he had sworn to rid the seas of it. Either Captain Farragut would kill the narwhal, or the narwhal would kill the captain. There was no third course.” (Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870).

The University of Washington Press has published a book about the mysterious narwhal, entitled Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The video, below, is a synopsis of the book ~ take note of the ancient woodcuts showing the narwhal as a sea monster on maps:

 

 

More Legends of the Narwhal

If you are intrigued by this denizen of the icy deep, read more about the narwhal in the following legends:

 

Winter Animal Study and Literature Links

Study the Narwhal as part of your winter studies

Connecting science and literature is a great way to add some excitement to your winter lessons. Why not add a study of the narwhal to your seasonal plans for February? This lover of the icy North is a perfect example of how an animal’s structure and habits make it suited for a seemingly inhospitable climate, and the legends around this rare creature lead to some fascinating legend studies.

The ebook, “Nature Study Notebooking Pages: Mammals” ($5.95, The Notebooking Treasury) is a big help for students organizing both facts about mammals and literature connections from their studies. This 392-page volume has both primary- and narrow-ruled pages of a variety of formats, including range maps and summaries of the life habits of 49 popular mammal species, as well as a set of template pages for the study of any other mammal, such as the narwhal and beluga whale. I have found these pages to be a big help in organizing students’ research on many topics, and use them at home with my own homeschoolers. Click the link above to order directly from this page, or click the image below for current specials from this publisher.

 

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