The narwhal, with its iconic spiraling tusk, is one of the most fascinating creatures of the Arctic seas. These elusive “unicorns of the sea” spark curiosity and wonder, often leading people to ask – whether narwhals can survive in captivity.
We’ll explore the answer in this article.
Here’s the Answer: Can Narwhals Live in Captivity?
Narwhals cannot survive in captivity. Narwhals can only live in the frigid waters of the Arctic. They have a very particular set of needs that make them challenging to maintain in captivity. While some attempts have been made to keep narwhals, all of them have been unsuccessful.
Why Can’t Narwhals Live in Captivity?
In the wild, narwhals live in the frigid waters of the Arctic and are uniquely adapted to that habitat. They have a very particular set of needs that make them challenging to maintain in captivity. Below are a few key reasons why narwhals cannot thrive in captivity:
Stress and Injury
Narwhals are medium-sized whales. Narwhals average 13-20 feet (4-6 m) in length. They weigh an average of 1,800-3,500 pounds (800-1,600 kg) and can reach up to 4,400 pounds (1,990 kg). Males are usually larger than females. Males possess a long, coiled tusk that can exceed 10ft (3 m).
So, narwhals can get stressed and hurt themselves if they don’t have enough room to swim. Their tusks and size have caused injuries when individuals have been agitated or bumped into tank walls.
Narwhals form close social bonds and travel in pods. Isolating them or keeping them in small groups could lead to stress, illness, and death. Facilities need the resources to keep multiple whales together.
Narwhals have a very specialized diet that is difficult to replicate in captivity. They feed on Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, shrimp, and other fish found only in the icy waters they inhabit. Facilities would need to supply an average of 66 pounds (30 kg) of food per day for a single narwhal.
The cold, salty waters of the Arctic are what narwhals are adapted to live in. Captive facilities struggle to replicate these conditions, like water temperature and salt content. Suboptimal water conditions have negatively impacted narwhal health.
Specifically, narwhals are extremely sensitive to warm temperatures. In the wild, they live in near-freezing waters year round. If water temperatures rise even slightly above 50°F, narwhals become stressed. Maintaining sufficiently cold water would require advanced systems that most facilities lack.
Need for Space
Narwhals are deep divers that migrate long distances. In captivity, they need room to dive and swim properly. Tanks must be exceptionally large and deep to house narwhals humanely.
Susceptibility to Illness
Narwhals live in cold, clean waters. But if they are kept in captivity’s warmer tanks, they can get sick. Bacteria, pneumonia, and problems with their skin and membranes are big health risks. The warm water is to blame.
Are There Any Attempts to Keep Narwhals in Captivity?
There have been some tries over the years to keep narwhals in captivity but with little success.
In 1969, the New York Aquarium became the first aquarium to have a narwhal. They were given a young narwhal named Umiak that was captured by Inuit hunters after its mother was killed. But less than a year later, On October 7, 1969, Umiak died of pneumonia at the aquarium.
In August 1970, the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada also got a narwhal named Keela Luguk. Murray Newman, their director, hoped having a narwhal would get people interested in protecting them. After a failed hunt, they bought Keela Luguk from Inuit whalers in Grise Fiord. They also captured some female narwhals and calves to join Keela Luguk. At first, people were excited, but within months, all of the whales except Keela Luguk died. By December, Keela Luguk had also passed away.
There were angry reactions from the public over the narwhals’ deaths. So, in 1971, the Canadian government introduced new narwhal protection rules under the Fisheries Act. These rules included a ban on capturing narwhals for aquariums. The regulations were to protect narwhal populations that could be harmed by uncontrolled hunting. Other laws, like the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, also restrict narwhal captivity and trading. The rules aim to safeguard wild narwhals rather than support captive narwhal facilities.
So, those early efforts to have narwhals at the New York Aquarium and Vancouver Aquarium ended with the whales dying very quickly. It showed how hard it is to keep narwhals alive in captivity.
Where Can You See Narwhals?
To easily spot narwhals, visit Arctic areas in the summer and go with experienced Inuit guides. Patience and luck also help with viewing these elusive whales. Here are some of the best places to see narwhals in the wild:
- Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Canada: Narwhals can often be spotted from the shoreline in summer. Local Inuit guides offer boat tours.
- Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada: Abundant narwhal populations in summer. Best viewed on guided boat tours with Inuit hunters to spot them from the ice.
- Scoresby Sound, Greenland: Large numbers of narwhals frequent this fjord system in summer. Cruise ships and tour boats offer viewing from June to August.
- Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada: Narwhals congregate to feed from July to September. Viewable on Arctic Kingdom tours based in Resolute.
- Svalbard, Norway: Occasional sightings are possible on boat tours from Longyearbyen in summer.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Do Narwhals Live In Captivity?
Narwhals have never survived longer than 3-4 months in captivity, with most dying within weeks or 1-2 months. Their specialized physiology makes long-term survival in artificial environments extremely challenging.
Can Narwhals Live in Aquariums?
No, narwhals cannot live long-term in aquarium environments. While some have been temporarily kept in aquariums in the past, all attempts have failed as mentioned.