Here on planet Earth, life comes in all kinds of forms – all serving their purposes. This certainly goes for life in the sea; some are rather strange looking.

But one of these oddities is the narwhal, nicknamed the “Unicorn of the Sea.” Even in this modern world, this is a creature we know very little about.

A unicorn of the deep

The narwhal (nar-wall) is pretty much like just another whale-type creature, except for one thing; a most prominent tusk sticks out of its front.

Actually, the tusk is a hollow tooth sticking out from its jaw. Males mostly have them, with some sporting two, but only about 1 in 7 females have one.

Photo of narwhal skeleton taken by Andrew Butko.*

It is because of this tusk that the narwhal has been called the “Unicorn of the Sea.”

There is debate about what this is used for. Is it a pick to break through the ice? Or, is it an extra sensor for detecting things? But regardless of its use, to the creature itself, this tusk can also be a problem.

The price of fame

The narwhal lives up above the arctic circle, which brings them in contact with the Inuit people who also live there. For these people, their menu is 100% seafood, the narwhal being no exception.

But being today's lunch special hasn't been the only reason they've been hunted. Viking traders would buy their tusks and sell them as unicorn horns in Europe. Here these would fetch their weight in gold. Queen Elizabeth I had a cup made out of this "unicorn horn" because people believed that such a cup would defeat any poison put into it.

Early depiction of a narwhal, drawn in the 1860s.

Ready for my closeup

Not much is known about the narwhal. Scientists did not even know what sound they made until 2019 (you can listen here). They make clicking sounds that can become so frequent as to sound like a chainsaw.

As I said, the narwhal lives in the arctic.

More to the point, they spend a great deal of their time under the ice. Although they are mammals and need air to breathe, they can go over for over 20 minutes underwater and dive as deep as a mile. Even so, a significant cause of death for narwhals is getting trapped under the ice and can't break out.

Narwhal group, photo taken by Ansgar Walk.**

Narwhals have a pretty selective diet of small fish, shrimp, squid, and Skate eggs (a type of stingray). But how do they eat when their tusk is pretty much their only tooth? Easy, they suck their prey up, like we do spaghetti.

I don't know how they manage it without teeth, any more than I know why they have a tusk. Perhaps, then, being taken for unicorns is more than merely a biological mix-up. Unicorns are, after all, mythical and little-understood creatures. Such a comparison seems rather appropriate for such a creature as these.

Great Books

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

This is the classic story by Jules Verne. It is 1866, and ships begin seeing what seamen describe as a sea monster – perhaps a giant narwhal. The famous French marine biologist Professor Pierre Aronnax agrees to help the United States navy find this monster. Their ship, the USS Abraham Lincoln, encounters the "monster," and in the resulting battle the professor, his assistant Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land end up overboard and meet the "monster."

To their surprise, the monster turns out to be a battery-powered submarine called the Nautilus under the command of Captain Nemo. They travel in this submarine for a distance of 20,000 leagues (60,000 miles) before they escape the sub and make it to shore. During the voyage, the professor records all the different animals they encounter, along with the adventure of traveling under the waves.

*Shared through creative commons license 3.0.

**Shared through creative commons license 2.5.