Kids are obsessed with narwhals. Here’s where they live.

These “unicorns of the sea” seem to be everywhere: on T-shirts, mugs, and more. But in their native Arctic waters, they’re hard to spot.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020,
By Jason Bittel
Near Canada’s Admiralty Inlet, narwhals display their tusks, which can grow up to ten feet long.

Near Canada’s Admiralty Inlet, narwhals display their tusks, which can grow up to ten feet long.

Photograph by Paul Nicklin, National Geographic Image Collection

You don’t have to search far and wide to find narwhals these days. The so-called “unicorns of the sea” are plastered on everything from kids’ pajamas and lunchboxes to plush toys and LEGO sets. But seeing the animals in the wild is something else entirely.

As a true Arctic whale, narwhals can mostly be found in the frigid waters of Canada and Greenland. And while the males sport spiraled, eight-foot-long tusks that push their total body length towards the size of a school bus, these conspicuous-looking creatures aren’t fond of the limelight.

“They’re really an elusive whale,” says Kristin Laidre, an Arctic ecologist at the University of Washington who’s studied narwhals for about 20 years. “They’re very skittish and I guess I’d say sneaky. They startle easily, so they’re not a whale that’s going to aggregate around your boat or anything like that for whale watching.”

This makes seeing a narwhal in its natural habitat difficult, but not impossible—providing you know where to look.

Life on the ice edge

As mammals, narwhals must periodically return to the water’s surface to breathe. And while they can swim far beneath the ice floes in search of Greenland halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid, their distances are limited by how many openings there are in the ice.

That edge, where ice meets water, makes for the ideal narwhal sighting spot, says David Briggs, an expedition leader for Arctic Kingdom, a travel company specialising in Arctic safaris, private polar expeditions, and logistics.

“They’re on a migratory path, and that path is interrupted by this ice,” says Briggs, who has worked in the region for a decade. “And so while they’re at that edge, they continue to feed and wait for the ice to break up further so they can get down the inlets to where they calve.”

Narwhals rest in a hole in the sea ice in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada.
Photograph by Paul Nicklin, National Geographic Image Collection

Seeing an actual narwhal, then, means snowmobiling out to the ice’s edge and sitting in a comfortable chair with a pair of binoculars for hours, or even days. The good news is that plenty of other species flock to the ice’s edge, too, and visitors might see everything from thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and northern fulmars, to beluga whales, polar bears, walruses, and three species of seal.

A singular sound

Of course, those who make the trek and have the patience can be rewarded with a life-changing narwhal experience.

According to Briggs, there’s just nothing like hearing the pshhhh of a narwhal blowing for the first time. The sound indicates that the animal has just exhaled after a deep dive underwater. As with other whales, sometimes you can spot flecks of water and mist in the air as the narwhals surface. And on a really good day, you might even spot a pod of 50 to 100 narwhals surfacing together, he says.

Once the pod comes within about a football field’s length of the edge, they’ll pause to perform a series of what Briggs describes as loud, whirring, breathing exercises. When he attempts to mimic the noise over the phone, it sounds a bit like Darth Vader has just conferenced in.

“It’s just amazing to sit there and listen to that sound,” Briggs says.

Swimming or paddling with whales

As the mottled-skinned whales come closer to the ice’s edge, there are also opportunities to dip a kayak into the water and even go for a snorkel. Scuba gear isn’t recommended, says Briggs, because the animals don’t like the bubbles it creates.

“It’s pretty magical,” says Todd Mintz, a certified public accountant who’s gotten into the water with narwhals several times while on expedition with Arctic Kingdom.

Mintz, who does nature photography on the side, says there’s just something about the way the whales turn to eye you up as they glide by. “Any animal that seems to look at you almost in the same way you're looking at it,” he says, “is quite amazing.”

Because narwhals are already wary of humans, every effort should be made to avoid scaring the animals off of productive hunting grounds or impacting their movements in negative ways.

A narwhal’s tusk is actually a single, gigantic tooth, but its actual use remains a mystery.

Photograph by Paul Nicklin, National Geographic Image Collection

Conservation considerations

Another thing to consider when planning any trip to the Arctic: the impact your trip could have on the animals, environment, and planet. But when done responsibly, Arctic expeditions can benefit local communities, national parks, and the animals that inhabit them by generating vital income. Before booking, ask your outfitter what steps they take to mitigate the impacts of Arctic travel and how they interact with the communities nearby. And be sure to read reviews from previous travellers for clues as to whether those claims are legitimate.

Both experts noted that travellers hoping to spot narwhals should have realistic expectations. “I’ve spent a month in the field, like camping on a beach in places that we know narwhals live, and not seen one,” says Laidre. “You’re really lucky if you see one.”

Unfortunately, the global coronavirus pandemic has made spotting a narwhal in the wild even more difficult. Nunavut, the northerly Canadian territory Arctic Expeditions operates out of for its narwhal tours, has declared a state of emergency as a precaution, leading to closures of school and government offices. And in respect to those communities, the outfitter says it has cancelled all expeditions through June 2020 and donated all of the purchased provisions to local food banks.

Jason Bittel a natural history writer and frequent contributor to National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter.
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