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The Songs of the Narwhal

April 28, 2022

As we get closer to May that means one thing for narwhal, it’s time to begin their miraculous annual migration.

Narwhal all across the Arctic will travel from their deep-water winter homes to their summer feeding territories among the shallow bays and river estuaries of the Canadian Arctic.

In the spirit of narwhal adoration, we thought we would talk about a unique feature of the narwhal, and it isn’t their tusk. It is about their ability to sing in distinct voices.


Voices of the Arctic Waters

Narwhal are one of the most elusive and fascinating animals of the sea. They are relatively small and very fast. They live much of their life among the cracks in sea-ice and dense pack ice. They are wary of motors so they avoid boats and helicopters and can dive up to 1,500 m (4,920 ft) so they are hard to find or watch.

Recently, scientists have started to capture, tag, and release narwhals in order to study the whales in their natural habitat. In 2006, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution working in Admiralty Bay on Baffin Island, Canada discovered evidence that narwhals may produce signature sounds, allowing them to recognize and even reunite with fellow whales.

Ari Shapiro, a graduate student with the WHOI’s Biology department, was part of the group that recorded narwhal vocalizations, as reported in the September 2006 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Shapiro and colleagues tagged three narwhals with a small digital archival tag, called a D-tag, developed at WHOI and about the size of a cell phone. This non-invasive tag was attached with suction cups, and was designed to detach from the animal within hours. The D-tag contains a hydrophone or underwater microphone and a suite of pressure and movement sensors. Recordings from two of the tagged animals revealed individually-distinctive pulsed/tonal signals and whistles. A third tag was not recovered.

Acoustic signaling is a reliable and efficient form of animal communication underwater. Although relatively little is known about narwhal communication, these animals, like other whales and dolphins, are thought to have excellent hearing. Few studies of the sort presented by Shapiro have been conducted, however, given the traditional difficulty of assigning vocalizations recorded in the wild to the individual animal that produced them.

“Many unanswered questions remain about narwhals, and understanding their vocal communication will provide insights into their social behavior,” said Shapiro, who is interested in the relationship between the vocal and social behavior of marine mammals. “The individually distinctive pulsed/tonal signals and whistles may be a badge of group membership or a signal of individual recognition.”


How You Can Hear Narwhal Sing

While they are elusive animals that shy away from motors, we at Arctic Kingdom have found a safe and stress-free way to see and photograph narwhal.

Our land-based wildlife safari takes you to the place that narwhal migrate past. This means that we do not put any motors in the water, and you get to sit and watch as the near-mythic whale comes to you.

Stand on the floe edge, where land-fast ice meets the open ocean and listen to the squeaks and chirps of the narwhal as they bob and socialize.

We bring a hydrophone with us so you can listen to them speak and call to each other while they are right in front of you! Even if the whales haven’t arrived yet, this underwater microphone will give you the first notice that they are on their way.

Watch narwhal burst out of the water and hearing them socialize is one of the most extraordinary feelings.

If you are fascinated by narwhal and want to hear or see them in person then find out more about our Narwhal & Polar Bear, A Floe Edge Safari here.


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By: Mathew Whitelaw