World of Wonder: Narwhals -The Toast

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s previous World of Wonder columns for The Butter can be found here.

I’m so excited to talk about this animal, friends! But first: I should mention that my time here on The Butter is sadly coming to an end. I have just one more entry for the World of Wonder column at the end of the month. I’ll be on sabbatical at the small college where I teach, and that means I have to get cracking on some long-awaited book projects and ventures that have been simmering for far too long.

So with that in mind, I’ve thought long and hard about what my two last features here on WoW should be, and I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t share with you all one of my favorite sea creatures on this blue planet: the lovable and mysterious narwhal!


En garde!

These “unicorns of the sea” (as Jules Verne called them in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) don’t have a dorsal fin, and they have vertebrae in their neck that allows them to do a whale of a double-take—the only other whale that shares these unique traits is the beluga. The males are about fifteen feet long and the females are about eleven feet long.


This is about how big an average narwhal is compared to a human. Careful, buddy—I wouldn’t get too close!

Narwhals are found mainly in the Arctic ocean, but occasionally you might find that a small pod of them have wandered into a Canadian fjord. But okay, can we talk about this “horn”? I mean…it’s actually the worst/funniest case of buck teeth ever. The narwhal “horn” is actually a tooth—a loooong, drawn-out tooth that pokes through the upper left “lip” (if narwhals had lips) of its mouth. Mostly males have this long-in-the-tooth situation, but some females have it as well, and some narwhals even have a double horn! No orthodontics magic can fix that affair.

The word narwhal comes from the old Norse word “nar,” which meant “like a corpse,” because of the distinctive mottled skin that made people think of [*shudder*] drowned sailors. And while I’m setting the groundwork for your nightmares tonight, let’s discuss narwhal eating habits, shall we? They eat cuttlefish, cod, and arm-hooked squid. Nothing too disturbing, right? But it’s the way they eat: a narwhal will swim up to its food very stealthy-like, slow and steady—and then open its mouth and inhale like the world’s scariest vacuum cleaner—and in one giant and powerful gulp, it will swallow the unsuspecting animal whole. Did I mention they like to swim UPSIDE-DOWN? Can you imagine seeing a narwhal sidle up to you, upside-down, and slowly start to open its mouth?

In spite of this, narwhals are classified as almost threatened—humans hunting them for their tooth and valuable fat supply is the main cause of their decline. Orcas and the occasional polar bear sometimes hunt baby narwhals, but not often. When orcas do hunt a pod of narwhals, the narwhals know they can’t outswim them, so they just dive dive dive—narwhals can survive to almost five thousand feet below sea level. And orcas can’t.

It’s dish time, Dear Readers—What is your oceanic “bucket list” animal? The one animal of the sea that you feel you just HAVE to see in person before you leave this earth? Let me know (with pictures!) in the comments below. The narwhal is pretty much it for me; I guess I’d better start saving my pennies for a trip to the Arctic, as I’m sure to never see them here on the shores of Lake Erie. Another favor: as I love, wear, collect all things narwhal, pls link to any narwhal-related items this “unicorn of the sea”-lover should know about! Till my next (and last, sob!) entry… En garde!

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Lucky Fish. She is a professor of English and teaches poetry and environmental lit at a small college in Western New York. She is obsessed with peacocks, jellyfish, and school supplies. Follow her on Twitter: @aimeenez.

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