For a brief period during the summer weeks the sea ice around arctic inlets melts, leaving the ocean waters dotted with floating icebergs. Great chunks of ice drift serenely through freezing waters, and arctic birds stand watch ready to pluck their prey from the icy depths. This is the perfect time to view one of the ocean’s most elusive spectacles: male Narwhals – the unicorns of the sea – jousting for superiority.
Along with the bowhead whale and beluga, Narwhals are one of three cetacean species that exclusively inhabit the freezing waters of the Arctic Circle. The gloomy depths of arctic inlets teem with sea-life of all kind, providing happy hunting grounds for these magnificent creatures. But it is hunting of an altogether different kind that provides what may well be one of the sea’s most astonishing spectacles.
Come at the right time of year, approach subtly and with patience, and you may just be lucky enough to witness two male Narwhals, on the hunt for a mate, jousting with their tusks before sinking back below the icy surface – an age old mating ritual, played out in the most desolate reaches of the arctic-circle, that is rarely glimpsed by humans.
Two male Narwhals will break from the waves and engage in elaborate swordplay, crossing tusks in an aggressive display of masculinity that shares much in common with the antler clashes of rutting stags. As one would imagine, many Narwhals are left permanently scarred from these brutal duels, some even surviving with portions of tusk embedded in their skulls.
The joust serves to establish and confirm the Narwhals’ social and sexual hierarchy, and once a clear winner emerges, mating can begin. Gestation lasts 15 months, before a single calf is born, weighing 180 lbs at a length of five feet. The calf will remain with its mother for 20 months, and will reach sexual maturity at 8-9 years of age, while females mature sexually quicker, at 4-7 years.
The Narwhal’s tusk has baffled scientists for many years: once thought to aid hunting, used as a sort of plunger to stir up the seabed sediment and flush out prey, this idea is largely dismissed due to the fact that female Narwhals have similar diets to males, but do not have a protruding tusk. Many scientists today think it more likely that the tusks are a symbol of sexual power – the bigger the better – used exclusively for display and aggressive purposes.
What is certain, however, is that the sight of these majestic creatures jousting remains one of the least understood, but most magical scenes in nature.