YOUNG WHALES ARE SOMETIMES KNOWN TO WANDER, but a lone, stray narwhal has apparently wandered into a pod of young beluga whales – and stayed. And been accepted as one of the boys.
The narwhal – identified by his iconic long tusk and gray-spotted body – has apparently been swimming with the white-bodies belugas in the St. Lawrence River for the past three years. The setting is far south of narwhals’ usual habitat in the Arctic.
THE STRAY NARWHAL AMONGST US
Researchers at Canada’s Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) were using a drone earlier this year to video a pod of 10 or so beluga whales swimming together in the St. Lawrence. It was part of an annual census of the 900 or so St. Lawrence belugas. This pod is assumed to be composed of young males.
Then, they realized they were seeing a stray narwhal among them. Comparing his spots with narwhal sightings from 2016 and 2017, they confirmed it to be the same whale. GREMM is unable to track whales year-round due to ice cover during winters.
JUST HANGING WITH THE GUYS
The adoptive stray narwhal appeared to be taking part in the whale-ish horseplay that young belugas males engage in among themselves – swimming close to the surface, blowing bubbles together, rolling and rubbing against each other.
Narwhals stand out because of their singular long, spiraling tusks, leading to their nickname as “Unicorns of the Sea.” He’s assumed to be young as well, mainly because the shorter length of his tusk.
Both narwhals and belugas are highly social, and both communicate among themselves with chirps and clicks, experts say. But they note that little is known about how similar their languages are.
It’s not known how the stray narwhal found his way to the St. Lawrence, some 600 miles south of its usual range in the Arctic. Narwhals typically live in areas covered with dense ice during winters. Belugas are more coastal elites, preferring shallower coastal waters, less ice cover. And their culinary habits are different, narwhals going for deep-sea prey, belugas for shallow-water fish like salmon.
While they both have broad ranges, their paths rarely intercept. However, there have also been occasional instances of beluga spotted swimming with narwhals in Arctic waters.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: “Group of Belugas May Have Adopted Young Narwhal,” Smithsonian; “Beluga whales adopt lost narwhal in St. Lawrence River,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; “Lone ‘Unicorn of the Sea’ Unexpectedly Adopted by Beluga Boys Club,” Inverse.