On Narwhals

Lookee here!

I was delighted to spot a narwhal tusk on the wall of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Great Hall--part of their "Very Like a Whale" exhibit, on display through January 6. I am quite fond of narwhals; not on the scale of capybaras, maybe, but close. Like capybaras, they make a cameo in a poem of mine, "The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything," which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review way back when, as part of the chapbook "Bitch and Brew: Sestinas."

In case you know little about this creature, let me introduce you...


Monodon monoceros


In recent years, narwhals have achieved the cultural ubiquity shared by penguins, pandas, and small vanity dogs. Key indicators include the founding of “Narwhal Vs. Narwhal,” a powerpop ensemble based in Portland, Oregon; foodie-blog buzz over the “bacon chicken narwhal," two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, fried, and detailed with pepperoni fins and a tusk carved from pepper jack cheese (recipe here); and the “Avenging Narwhal Play Set,” complete with baby seal and Koala bear figurines readied for impalement.


“It’s weird they have that one tooth,” he says. “Gross.” 

“What’s wrong with a tooth?” I ask. “We’ve got even more teeth. Are we ‘gross’?”

“No, but theirs is freaky long—and always on the same side, left incisor. Isn’t it just the males? I only remember because it’s freaky.” 


Nar is old Norse for corpse; Scandinavians named this arctic whale the “narwhal” because its gray, mottled body resembled that of a drowned sailor. Inuit myth claims the creature originated when a wicked woman, tricked into anchoring her son’s hunting line, was dragged into sea by a harpooned beluga. In her dying struggle, the harpoon’s shaft tangled in her hair and fused to her spirit-self, forming the narwhal. 

By Medieval times the narwhal tusk was thought magical, synonymous with the unicorn horn. The Vikings delightedly jacked up their export prices. Neighboring royalty took to drinking from cups made of hollowed-out tusk, believing the cups neutralized poisons. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Worm (a.k.a. “Olaus Wormius”) exposed unicorns as a scam. It took another century before British physicians stopped prescribing powdered tusk for everything from erectile dysfunction to the plague. 

Seafarers have long wondered why narwhals surface, rear up, and rub horns in a display known as “tusking.” Are they friendly? Conspiratorial? Jousting? Naturalist Charles Darwin decided their tusks were a secondary sex characteristic, akin to antlers—handy for showing off, not good for much else. His educated guess was soon accepted as fact.

Narwhals are exceptionally elusive to field study; none have survived in captivity. And so, there is no known record of narwhals feeding. Scientists theorize their diet from posthumous stomach dissections that yield halibut, cod, shrimp, squid, and rocks. The rocks are probably accidental. 


Narwhals frequent the waters of Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Each weighs between one and two tons, averaging 12 to 15 feet in body length. They dive deep and fast. Really deep: 2,400-4,500 feet. Really fast: they make the round trip in 25 minutes.

Around 75,000 narwhals live in the wild. Their predators are orcas, polar bears, and humans. The latter is under increasing regulation. In 2004 Greenland banned tusk exportation, setting hunting quotas to subsistence levels. Inuits prize raw narwhal flesh, mattak, sliced and dipped in soy sauce. The taste is termed “hazelnutty.”


The Narwhal tusk may spiral up to 10 feet and is usually found in the upper left jaw of the male narwhal. One in 500 males sport a second tusk. Only three percent of females ever grow a tusk. 

It was a 2005 study that revealed the tusk is really a pulped tooth, containing an astonishing 10 million nerve endings. Narwhals use their tooth to detect subtle shifts in salinity, temperature, and other environmental factors. This casts new light on the purpose of tusking. Perhaps it is collaborative form of tooth-brushing, scraping away algae and barnacles that block nerve tubules. 

In all likelihood, tusking also generates pleasure. In contrast, the human penis contains only 4,000 nerve endings—less than half as many as the narwhal tooth. If only humans could multitask in such spectacular fashion, gingivitis would soon be a thing of the past. 

Narwhals! And that is our Wednesday serving of awesome. 

These are busy days--I hope to see some folks at the VQR event tonight, and also at the Story League showcase next Tuesday, both at the Arts Club--not to mention that I'm fighting off a cold. But how could I not emerge from my hibernation to talk narwhals?