In 2018 a lost narwhal was sighted in the Saint Lawrence River, which lies hundreds of miles away from his natural Arctic habitat. And this wasn’t the first time that the sea creature had found himself in foreign waters, either, as he’d also previously been seen in the same area of Canada in 2016 and 2017. But although the narwhal may have been far from his usual stomping grounds, he wasn’t alone. Yes, the whale had an unlikely group of friends to keep him company – although his traveling buddies may not be who you’d expect.
According to National Geographic, the narwhal is “the unicorn of the sea” – and it’s not hard to spot why. You see, the mammal’s most distinguishing feature is its incredible tusk, which partly helps the narwhal reach a size of up to 20 feet long. And that protuberance may make swimming into one of the creatures a distinctly dicey prospect.
That said, tusks – which can grow to the length of a javelin – are most noticeable in males of the species, although female narwhals can develop minor versions themselves. And while the spiral protrusion’s use is not entirely known, it’s nevertheless thought that the tusk may be handy in attracting potential mates – or discouraging any competition from doing the same.
Interestingly, though, the narwhal’s tusk is actually one of two teeth that protrudes through the edge of its mouth. This overgrown feature is referenced, too, in the mammal’s binomial name: Monodon monoceros, or “one tooth, one horn.” And the striking tusk also makes the narwhal relatively easy to identify, as we will discover later.
As for where these marine giants can usually be seen, they typically swim in the cold waterways of the Arctic. Yet while this means that narwhals tend to inhabit the same remote region as the Inuit, the relationship between the animals and the humans that dwell in the area is not always a harmonious one.
You see, the Inuit people target the narwhal population for both their tusks and their outer layers. The latter commodity is intended for human consumption, as the skins are a handy source of nutritional goodness. More specifically, the hides contain ascorbic acid – otherwise known as vitamin C.
There are however plenty of other dangers awaiting a narwhal on any given day – not least through moving ice packs. If a group of narwhals are suddenly hemmed in by ice, for example, the marine animals may find themselves vulnerable to attack from not only humans, but also walruses and polar bears.
Then there’s also the risk that a narwhal may become stranded far from its natural habitat. Perhaps this isn’t so much of an omnipresent threat as being hunted, though, since narwhals typically swim about in a pack – the collective noun for which is the rather charming “blessing.”
Most typically, a blessing of narwhals is comprised of 15 to 20 mammals. Yet such a group can expand hugely, meaning it’s possible to witness a single blessing that contains thousands of the creatures. And perhaps when it comes to getting from A to B, traveling with others is the best option for a narwhal. After all, as the old saying goes, there is safety in numbers.
One narwhal appears to have bucked that trend, however, by swimming far out of his comfort zone. And this particular lone traveler had come a long way, somehow ending up in the St. Lawrence River – a huge waterway that starts at Lake Ontario and ends up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Normally, in fact, the narwhal’s territory doesn’t extend past Ungava Bay – a remote part of the world situated in the north of Quebec. It seems, then, that the mammal in question had traveled the length of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as around a portion of Quebec in order to wind up as far south as he did.
And on July 29, 2016, researchers from the non-profit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) spotted something that was highly out of the ordinary. The members of GREMM know what’s usually in the St. Lawrence River, too, as they conduct studies on the whales that live in the waters there.
Nevertheless, GREMM’s research doesn’t take place all year round, as the river conditions are too cold from November to May. The organization’s boat can’t penetrate the frozen water during those months, you see, meaning any whales in the area cannot be traced. However, once June rolls around, the group’s members are back in action.
And it just so happens that in the early evening of that day in July 2016, members of GREMM had spied a pod of belugas that were swimming adjacent to Trois-Pistoles – a town approximately 150 miles downriver from Quebec City. But what was so unusual about the sight that it made the researchers linger nearby for longer than an hour?
Well, the pod that the GREMM team had witnessed was comprised of as many as 80 whales, and that display alone may have been impressive enough to behold. But, intriguingly, one of the group’s number was no beluga. Yes, the lone narwhal had indeed joined the gathering.
Somewhat inevitably, then, the strange vision of a narwhal traveling with whales of an entirely different species caused quite a stir among the people on the expedition. But as it turns out, this special moment was not to be an isolated event, as the narwhal was seen once again in the area a year later – and he appeared to be accompanied by the same buddies, too.
Yes, after a comparison was made between images captured of the narwhal in 2016 and the animal in the river several months on, researchers were pretty sure that they’d spotted the wandering cetacean once more. At least some of the belugas witnessed in 2016 were back this time to boot.
Then, the following year, the narwhal made yet another appearance. On this occasion, however, a video captured the extraordinary turn of events after GREMM members employed a drone to record the marine creature alongside his fellow whales. And GREMM shared the result of the filming on its website in July 2018.
The clip begins with an aerial view of a ten-member beluga pod swimming close to the surface of the water. The creatures appear bright white against the darkness of the river. Then another beluga rises from the black depths to bring up the rear, and the pod becomes 11 strong.
But it then becomes clear that there is an extra whale – darker than his fellow aquatic creatures – accompanying the group. The video explains this intruder, however, through the accompanying text, “Since 2016, a young male narwhal has been observed in the St. Lawrence Estuary.”
And according to the video, the narwhal is “over 1,000 kilometers” – or more than 621 miles – “south of its normal range.” Despite the interloper’s presence, however, the animals all seem to be very much at home together. Despite their unconventional unit, they move in perfect harmony and glide through the water as a synchronized group.
Then, nearly 30 seconds into the video, a helpful image comparison shows snaps from the three separate sightings of the narwhal in 2016, 2017 and 2018. And the footage highlights where specific markings on each of the three images appear to be identical.
Next, the clip provides a closer view of the pod. The vagrant narwhal is again rather easy to pick out thanks to his mottled gray markings; the belugas, on the other hand, appear so white that their blowholes are very conspicuous. And viewers are treated to the sight of members of the group breaking the surface almost as one.
Then as the whales are seen dipping back below the water, a caption appears, reading, “[The narwhal] is swimming with young belugas as if he were one of them.” Certainly, the compact pod seem united, as each animal travels in very close proximity to its counterparts.
And then, about two-thirds of the way through the clip, the narwhal’s most distinctive feature finally comes into view. At this point, the whale swims above two submerged belugas; and with many of the rest of the pod below the surface, his tusk can be seen unobscured.
As the video progresses, the narwhal remains sandwiched between the same pair of belugas, too. Not only that, but all three marine creatures seem to be roughly of a similar size. Meanwhile, although the other belugas in the pod continue to swim along, they now appear as blurry shapes beneath the water’s rippling surface.
Ultimately, the clip ends with a plea to its audience to consider adopting a beluga – along with a suggestion that the investment would result in safeguarding the mammals in the years to come. The concluding caption reads, “Help us better understand belugas so that we can better protect them.”
And some of the video’s viewers certainly seemed to appreciate the soothing minute or so of film. One commenter remarked, for instance, “If this video lasted one hour [with] the same footage, same music and ocean sound, I would watch it over and over again. Beautiful.”
Another individual playfully speculated on the potential ramifications of the two species continuing to associate. That’s right: the YouTube user wrote, “And then they had narlugas and balwhals.” A fellow YouTuber similarly pondered, “I wonder if narwhals and belugas can crossbreed?” It’s certainly an intriguing thought.
In fact, hybrids of the species do exist – although so-called narlugas are not common. Yet a narwhal-beluga pairing is unlikely to produce fruit in this instance. You see, the belugas with which the lone narwhal has been associating are “thought to be mostly or all males,” according to a 2018 CBC report.
Nevertheless, GREMM founding member Robert Michaud believes that some of the interaction taking between the belugas and the narwhal may be more than simply platonic in nature. He told CBC, “It’s like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games.”
That said, the stray narwhal has been lucky to find suitable companions in the first place. Left to their own devices, stranded narwhals can turn to attempting to befriend people, and this could ultimately prove dangerous for the animals. Approaching a boat, too, may potentially cause a narwhal potential harm by way of a vessel’s propeller.
Instead – and in contrast to some of his kin – the wandering narwhal was happily adopted by harmless companions. And Michaud commented on the mammal’s good fortune, saying to CBC, “That little narwhal… was very lucky… because he found almost normal buddies.”
But how did the mismatched whales manage to band together in the first place? Surely their union isn’t that unusual; the narwhal is, after all, a relation of the beluga. Nonetheless, the University of Washington’s Kristin Laidre still finds the companionship curious. She explained to CBC, “Narwhals and belugas, though closely related, are pretty different.”
And those differences can be fairly stark. For one, the narwhal typically prefers to populate deeper bodies of water. The beluga, on the other hand, favors areas closer to shore that aren’t as icy. There, you see, it’s possible to access salmon and other fish that swim in the shallows.
But what divides the two species seems to pale in significance compared with the similarities that unite them. Firstly, both narwhals and belugas tend to be sociable – as is perhaps suggested by the way in which the whales typically travel together.
In addition, belugas and narwhals are both vocal mammals. And in terms of their respective methods of communicating, the sounds that the two types of marine creatures emit are an assortment of chirrups and clicking noises. When talking to AJ+ in 2018, Michaud even acknowledged, “The frequency range used by belugas and narwhals are quite similar.”
Then there’s the fact that certain young belugas have also been known to go astray. And, interestingly, Harvard University narwhal expert Martin Nweeia told CBC that his group of researchers have witnessed some of the whales in prime narwhal territory: the Arctic Bay.
Nor should people be surprised by the companionable manner of either narwhals or belugas, Nweeia added. He said to CBC, “I think it shows… the compassion and the openness of other species to welcome another member that may not look or act the same. And maybe that’s a good lesson for everyone.”
But when it comes to the Canadian whales, it remains to be seen whether the group materializes in the St. Lawrence River for a fourth year running. In any case, if the lone narwhal isn’t with other members of his kind, hopefully he has now found his forever home among the beluga clan.