People tend to either not know much about narwhals or think they are mythical. They are real, they are found in Arctic waters and are a medium sized toothed whale with an 8 foot long spiral horn which is actually a tooth. The name narwhal means corpse whale in old norse, apparently they look a lot like dead bodies…
The reason we don’t know much about them is because they have adapted to survive in cold, dark, deep places and inhabit a mysterious place. They thrive in an environment that is very different to that which most of us live in. Because of this it has taken a long time to get to know them, although I do think it’s worth the effort. I feel a little like a narwhal in that respect, it takes time for me to let people see me and get to know me and uncover the many layers of me.
They live in the tiny crevices between ice sheets and from there, they dive deep for the food. They have a collapsible rib cage which is why they don’t get crushed when they dive so deeply but as they are mammals, they must return to the surface to breathe. They inhabit different levels of the sea, familiar with each layer and able to glide between them with ease. When we think of the metaphor of the sea as our emotional world, we can see that the narwhal is a emotional master, not afraid of its feelings and embracing all that makes them them.
As I mentioned previously, their tusks were sold as unicorn horns and at one stage were worth more than gold. In general, it is the male who has the tusk although occasionally a female will and occasionally a narwhal will have two tusks. The tusk is actually a tooth and despite being incredibly strong, they are also fairly flexible – they can bend a foot or so in each direction! There are mixed views about the purpose of the tusk but they do engage in “tusking” where they rub them against another narwhals tusk. This has been considered an act of aggression but is possibly more likely to be a bonding activity. It has also been suggested that they are a sign of sexual prowess and/or a way of attracting mates, like the peacocks feathers. Another possibility is that is is a way of declaring social status and maintaining social order. As I said, we don’t know a lot about the narwhal but there is research ongoing.
Regardless of the purpose of the tusk, it is an impressive adornment. However, I find it sad that they were valued because they were thought to be unicorn horns. As such, I get themes of being overlooked, misunderstood, invalidated and being unseen from this creature.
Unfortunately we may not have time to get to know them properly and to value them for who they are. Compared to other arctic mammals, they aren’t very adaptable and thus climate change is likely to hit them hardest. They have a limited diet and live in a narrow ice dependent habitat which puts them at risk of extinction.