Narwhals, the so-called unicorns of the sea, may be among the most recognizable marine animals, but they are also notoriously difficult to study due to their skittish nature and uncongenial habits. These characteristics, plus the fact that they live in one of the noisiest environments in the ocean, have made it also very difficult for researchers to study their sounds, that is up until now.
Marine biologists, with the help of Inuit whalers, have recently assembled an unprecedented collection of narwhal vocalizations, offering fresh insights into the behaviors of these near-mythical creatures.
Normally, narwhals are found deep below the Arctic Ocean surface, but they summer off the coasts of northern Canada and Greenland. For the marine biologists who wish to study these creatures, this presents a bit of a problem, as narwhals tend to loiter around dangerous glacial fjords, and are easily drawn away by the sounds of motorboats.
This is a shame, because vocalizations are an effective way to study these and other marine mammals. Also, as narwhals are highly susceptible to climate change, it’s ever more important to document their sounds now and create a baseline description of them.
To that end, two researchers from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, set out on an expedition in July 2019 to record narwhals summering in Arctic glacial fjords in northwest Greenland. Additionally, to ensure that they get close to the narwhals without frightening them, they tapped into the knowledge of a group of Inuit whalers who accompanied them.
The whalers managed to spot the narwhals in time to shut down the engines and avoid spooking them. Then, moving off in a kayak, they managed to get as close as 25 meters from the animals, enabling them to start recording the narwhals without trouble.
The various calls, buzzing noises, clicks, and whistles provided the researchers with a baseline for the types of sounds made by narwhals in this particular environment. Roughly 17 hours of recordings were collected during the expedition. These recordings are already contributing to our understanding of these remarkable creatures.
In addition to social calls, which sounded like pulsed-tones and whistles, the researchers were able to identify narwhal foraging sounds, namely their echolocation clicks. This showed that narwhals forage for food in their summer habitat, which wasn’t obvious before.
If you wish to hear the curious sounds of these fascinating animals, look no further.