Narwhals - The Unicorn Of The Sea
For centuries observers have been fascinated and mystified by the majestic spiral tusk grown by the small Arctic whale known as the narwhal. Considered by many to be the "Unicorns of the Sea", it is no wonder that narwhals have often been associated with magical properties. The fact that they live in the relative isolation of the remote high north, and that they do not thrive well in captivity, adds to the mystery and ignorance surrounding these remarkable whales.
Many medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be true unicorn horns, and would pay Vikings and other northern traders many times a tusk's weight in gold to own one. It was believed that a cup made from a narwhal's tusk would destroy any poison that had been placed in it. In artwork, unicorn horns often display the same spiral patterning found on narwhal tusks.
Queen Elizabeth paid £10,000 in the 16th century for a carved narwhal tusk set with jewels. During that time, with the same amount of money, she could have purchased a castle. She used the ornate narwhal tusk as a sceptre.
As explorers and naturalists began to visit Arctic region during the age of exploration, the mystery of the narwhal began to give way to fact:
- Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a horn on its forehead in 1555.
- In 1577, Martin Frobisher corrected Olaus' error, showing the horn going forward.
- In 1638, Ole Wurm gave a public lecture on narwhal tusks, and a wider understanding of narwhals truly began.
Narwhals And The Inuit
Narwhals have, for thousands of years, been a significant staple in the traditional subsistence economy of Inuit people in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, and the Inuit people of Greenland. Narwhals are hunted by the Inuit for their tusks, maqtaq (blubber), meat, and skin.
Hunting narwhals continues to be of great social and cultural significance for many Inuit communities. Maqtaq is consumed locally or traded to other Inuit communities. Maqtaq is highly prized as food, and the demand for it often exceeds the supply. Narwhal tusks are often sold internationally, due to their great value on the international market.
In Canada, only Inuit can hunt narwhals and limits are placed on the number of narwhals any one community can harvest.
Protecting Narwhals Populations
In Canada, regulations limit the hunting and capture of narwhals, and the export and movement of narwhal products. The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board manages such regulations, with the cooperation of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and numerous hunting, trapping and wildlife organizations.
Narwhals are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Canada cooperates with Greenland in the conservation of shared narwhal populations.