The Sea Unicorn
When you heard the word ivory or tusks, I bet you will imagine an elephant. You will think that the white tusk or ivory is what it means solely. And, if you hear the word horn, you will relate it to goat or cow. However, there is another animal that has it. Have you ever heard about unicorn? For Harry Potter’s movie watchers or fairy tales readers, they can figure it out easily. Unicorn is a horse with an ivory/tusk/horn grown on its forehead. Unicorn is never considered to actually exist. It might be a part of fairy tale, but it the unicorn as an animal came into being from narwhal.
Narwhal is a tusked-whale with compact size of 13 to 16 feet long living around the northern polar seas. Their tusks were linked to the legend of the unicorn and believed to have medicinal, even magical power. At its peak during the Middle Ages, “unicorn horn” was worth ten times its weight in gold. The allegendly unicorn horn in the Middle Ages was actually the narwhal’s ivory. The narwhal tusk is actually the left front tooth of the male which projects up to 3 meters; the length is dependant on the whale and the age.
The tusk of the narwhal was sold by Vikings and other northern traders as the horn of the legendary unicorn which were considered to have magic powers. Reportedly, during the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth purchased a narwhal tusk for the cost of ten thousand pounds – the cost of a castle. The tusk was used as her scepter.
The tusk is believed to be a integral part of the mating process, as the males have often been seen crossing tusks during mating season, as well as using them during fighting for dominance and the right to mate with the female narwhals. Female narwhals have a shorter, and straighter tusk.
Even though the tusks grow with age, there is currently no reliable way of determining the age of a narwhal. The spiral tusks are now high priced. Longer tusks fetch higher price: A nine-foot specimen in prime condition may earn $2,000 for a hunter, then $5,000 for a retailer.
The narwhal whale is able to produce a calf once every 3 years with a 15-month gestation period. Newborn calves are dark blue-gray, but as they mature the back transforms to an olive brown and begin to develop the spotting which is most often seen in adults narwhals. Narwhals calves are usually born in July and are rarely born outside deep bays and inlets and remain with the female narwhal for up to twenty months after they are born. As adults the calves can grow to become 4.6 meters and weigh up to 1600 kilograms, if male. The female of the species can grow up to 4 meters and weigh up to 1000 kilograms.
Narwhals are generally seen in groups of twenty to thirty with varying combinations of male, female, and claves. Narwhals can be mainly found in the Atlantic and Russian portions of the Antarctic. Individual narwhals are sometimes seen in the northern portions of the Hudson Bay and Strait, as well as the Baffin Bay, off of the eastern coast of Greenland, and in a relatively narrow area running along the northern end of Greenland to eastern Russia.
The narwhal whale population is estimated to be around 40,000, but has also been suggested to be as high as 50,000 individual whales.
Narwhals, being migratory, travel close to the coasts during the summer months, and travel farther away as the winder freeze starts to set in, and spend their winters in packed ice, and thrive in leads and small holes in the ice. Naturally, the return of the narwhal is a long-anticipated event in the Canadian Arctic. After months of darkness and temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenhait, winter gives way to spring, and the sea ice covering Lancaster Sound begins to splinter. Open stretches of water, called leads, become travel lanes for the small whales as they follow the retreating sea ice toward their ancestral summering grounds around Baffin Island. Narwhals parade past in pods of eight or ten, then in grand procession of hundreds.
Narwhals became the part of Inuit hunting culture back to years ago. Now it is more of the social needs for food (its fat, flesh) and shelter (its skin), and trade (all parts including the precious tusks) since the consumptive way of life also spreads to the Inuit ice culture. But due to uncontrolled hunting these animals are endangered now.