Why narwhal are the most vulnerable to a warmer, louder Arctic

For millennia, these tusked ice whales have been a vital part of Inuit culture in the eastern Arctic. In other parts of the world, the narwhal’s long spiral tusks were once believed to have magical properties, earning them the name “unicorn of the sea.”

Today, narwhal continue to inspire awe and wonder across the globe but, sadly, scientists have classified the species as the marine mammal most vulnerable to climate change.

Here’s why — and how you can make a difference for their survival. From now until March 19, your gift will be matched for twice the impact for narwhal and other iconic Canadian species.* Male Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) gathering en masse to eat cod in the spring at the Arctic Bay floe edge in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada.

© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Their entire lives are connected to sea ice

Nowhere are the effects of climate change being felt faster and more dramatically than in the Arctic where the narwhal live. What makes narwhal especially susceptible is how closely connected their lives are to the sea ice, both for food and refuge from predators. In fact, no other whale spends more time among the sea ice as the narwhal.

And it’s changing

With the Arctic warming at almost three times the global average, melting sea ice may force narwhal to change the migration patterns passed down from their mothers. Narwhal move easily under the sea ice, seeking out cracks in the ice, known as leads, in order to breathe. Fatal entrapments of hundreds of whales at an isolated breathing hole are known to happen when a quick drop in temperature freezes over the leads where narwhal surface. But as sea ice dynamics become less predictable, and narwhal are displaced from their preferred habitat, entrapment events are likely to increase.

Narwhal surfacing for breath
© Paul Nicklen_National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Previously impenetrable sea transport routes are opening up

Narwhal have also been singled out as the marine mammal most vulnerable to increased shipping in the Arctic, given the high overlap between their preferred habitats and sensitivity to underwater noise. Noise pollution from ships can interfere their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators, and take care of their young.

Right now, an iron mine on Baffin Island is seeking government approval to double its production to over 14 million tonnes. This would dramatically increase the number of ships travelling through Tallurutiup Imanga, one of Canada’s newest National Marine Conservation Areas and an important habitat for narwhal. Inuit communities have been speaking out about the possible impacts of Baffinland’s Mary River mine on wildlife and people.

More killer whales are heading north

Warming waters are also making the Arctic more hospitable for one of the narwhal’s top predators: the killer whale. Less ice means more orca are able to arrive in the Arctic earlier and stay for longer periods, preying on summering narwhal and beluga whales. This troubling trend is already changing the timid narwhal’s behaviour, forcing them to move away from feeding areas when killer whales are present.

What WWF-Canada is doing and how you can help

With up to 90 percent of the world’s narwhal population summering in Canadian waters, we have a unique responsibility to keep them safe. Together, along with our community partners on the ground in Nunavut, we can help ensure that the waters where they swim are carefully managed. Here’s what we’re doing:

  • Working with industry, northern governments and communities to minimize impacts from marine traffic on wildlife, including measures to reduce underwater noise pollution from shipping.
  • Advocating for new protected areas in places where wildlife like narwhal needs them the most.
  • Funding innovative research to better understand migration routes, core habitats and how increased ship traffic is affecting whales.
  • Tracking how climate change is affecting Canada’s wildlife. With this data, we can identify climate refuges for an entire range of Arctic species and ensure that the areas we’ve already protected are remain effective as the planet warms and habitats and behaviours shift.

But we need your help first. Match my gift

*In support of the WWF-Canada’s conservation work, Nissan Canada Foundation will match the aggregate of donors’ donations up to an aggregate of $70,000 CAD provided that such donations are made before 11:59 p.m. EST on March 19, 2021. Don’t delay!