The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is one of the most elusive and mystical creatures in the ocean. With its long, spiraling tusk protruding from its head, the narwhal looks like the unicorn of the sea. While narwhals may appear magical, are they actually dangerous?
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the nature and behavior of narwhals to answer the question – are narwhals dangerous?
Here’s Are Narwhals Dangerous?
No, narwhals are not considered dangerous to humans. Their long, twisted tusks may look intimidating, but narwhals use their tusks for communication, not for attacking. However, humans pose a danger to narwhals through activities such as hunting, habitat loss, and climate change.
Do Narwhals Attack Humans?
There are no recorded incidents of a narwhal purposefully attacking, threatening, or harming a human in the wild. They are not inherently aggressive animals and tend to avoid confrontation when possible. Narwhals appear to exhibit curiosity towards humans but maintain their distance. Even when hunted or approached closely by boats, narwhals will flee rather than fight.
If narwhals feel threatened or cornered, they may slap their tails, charge, or jab with their long tusks. Male narwhals use their tusks to show dominance during mating season and can cause serious injury. But such aggressive tusking has only been observed between male narwhals competing for mates. There are no records of a narwhal directing such an attack towards humans in boats or in the water.
So even though narwhals could harm people with their big tusks if provoked, they rarely act aggressively toward humans. Their shy and reclusive nature makes unprovoked attacks on divers or boats exceedingly unlikely.
Can You Swim with Narwhals?
Swimming with narwhals would be an incredible experience, but it is not permitted and could be potentially dangerous. Narwhals spend much of their time diving beneath the Arctic ice sheets, surfacing through cracks in the ice to breathe. During migration, when they are in open water, they can be shy and unpredictable near people.
While attacks may be rare, there are inherent risks to humans who attempt to swim near narwhals. Their large tusk can cause grave injury if a frightened or provoked narwhal were to thrash or contact a person in the water. There are also risks of hypothermia and disorientation for a human swimmer in the frigid Arctic waters far from land or rescue. Narwhals are capable of sudden rapid movements and have been observed to breach completely out of the water onto the ice.
Also, there are ethical worries about bothering narwhals in their natural home. Federal laws protect sea mammals like the narwhal by not allowing swimming with them or getting too close without permission. Responsible whale watching aims to avoid altering their normal behaviors. For these reasons, swimming with wild narwhals would be very dangerous and illegal.
Have Narwhals Ever Killed Anyone?
There are no known human fatalities definitively caused by a narwhal. This is likely due to the remote Arctic habitat of narwhals and their avoidance of humans in most situations. However, scientists think that a hurt or scared narwhal could hurt someone with its long tusk.
Records show narwhals can embed their tusks deeply into whale carcasses during feeding. Males also frequently break the tips of their tusks during combat with other narwhals. Such force could certainly cause traumatic puncture wounds or blows if directed at a human target.
In the 13th century, a royal ambassador to Iceland wrote of a man killed by the tusk thrust of a “fierce worm” believed to have been a narwhal. However, the authenticity of this report has been questioned. In modern times, there have been alleged but unverified reports of hunter deaths caused by narwhal tusking. But overall, fatal narwhal attacks on humans appear to be extremely rare or nonexistent events.
The dangers of the narwhal’s tusk should be taken seriously. But since narwhals are not aggressive, deadly fights with humans are unlikely if the narwhals are not bothered or provoked. To safely see narwhals without endangering people, stay a safe distance away and respect their habitat.
How Dangerous Is a Narwhal Tusk?
The long spiral tusk of the narwhal poses certain dangers due to its sharpness and the powerful muscles that propel it:
- The tusk’s razor-sharp, inch-thick tip can inflict deep punctures or slashing wounds. Males frequently break the tips of their tusks during combat.
- Tusks can reach 10 feet in length and weigh up to 22 pounds. This gives them the mass and force to potentially cause fatal blunt trauma.
- Narwhals can quickly thrust or swipe their tusks in a forward-stabbing motion to impale prey or opponents. This is performed with up to 500 pounds of muscle force.
- Male narwhals practice tusking behaviors such as “fencing” for dominance disputes. They can break bones or cause internal injuries when directed at another whale.
- The narwhal tusk’s porous surface could harbor bacteria. So, without proper medical treatment, an infected stab wound from a narwhal tusk could be deadly.
However, narwhals use their tusks primarily for sensing, picking mates, and finding food, not for fighting. Their tendency is to avoid contact with humans when possible rather than inflict injury. So, while the tusk poses the potential for harm, actual dangerous use toward humans seems rare. Caution is still warranted around these long-tusked whales in their frigid habitat.
Do Narwhals Bite?
No, narwhals don’t bite people. While narwhals have big tusks that could possibly hurt humans, they do not use their tusks in an aggressive way. Narwhals mainly use their tusks for social things like communicating with other narwhals or jousting. They do not use them for aggression or defense.
It is possible a narwhal might bite if provoked or stressed like any wild animal could. But there are no recorded cases of narwhals biting humans when not provoked. Their natural predators are polar bears and orcas, not people.
How Fast Can Narwhals Swim?
Narwhals normally cruise at speeds of 1.8-5 mph (2.9-8.2 km/h) but can reach bursts up to 11.5 mph (18.5 km/h) when needed. They can swim at varying speeds depending on what they are doing.
Narwhals can swim up to 160 km per day while migrating, which averages out to about 6.5 km per hour. However, they may swim slower or faster at different times.
Narwhals can swim at approximately 10 knots (11.5 mph) but will have bursts of speed and also slow swimming. Generally, narwhals travel together swimming fast near the surface. However, sometimes float motionless or leap out of the water. To meet their oxygen demands, narwhals can swim at 1 m/s (2.2 mph) underwater for over 20 minutes.
In summary, while migrating, narwhals typically cruise around 6.5 kph but are capable of bursts up to 11.5 mph. They can sustain speeds of around 2.2 mph when diving for extended periods of time. Their swimming speed varies depending on the activity and situation.
So, while not the fastest whale, narwhals can certainly swim rapidly for short durations. Their speed could make them potentially hazardous for any nearby divers or swimmers.
How Do Narwhals React to Humans?
Narwhals generally seem wary and stressed by encounters with humans.
- Narwhals will often quickly dive and disappear from sight when they detect humans.
- Their heart rates plummet dramatically, dropping from 60 beats per minute to just 3-4 beats per minute, when disturbed by humans.
- They stop echolocating with clicks, which is important for hunting and navigation when exposed to human-made noise.
- In general, Their reactions indicate they are “frightened and stressed” by human interaction and noise.
This stress response from a rapid dive and plummeting heart rate suggests narwhals perceive humans as a threat. While they may approach boats curiously at times, on the whole, their physiological reactions indicate that human encounters cause significant alarm and anxiety for these Arctic whales. More protection is likely needed to safeguard their welfare as human activity increases in their ocean habitat.