Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World [Reading Challenge 2020]

Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World

by Todd McLeish
University of Washington Press, 2013

[Challenge # 22 : A book taking place mostly or all on water.]

My first choice for this category, Blackfish City, didn’t work out, so I subbed Narwhals one after noticing I had saved it to my Seattle Public Library reading list.

I am a sucker for reading books about cetaceans. Some of my favorites include Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, by David Neiwart, and The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare. Guess I should read Moby Dick sometime soon, eh? Anyway, not only did Narwhals promise to shed light on this poorly studied species of whale, it was also set, coincidently, in the same area of the world the previous STIQ (screw-this-i-quit) book was, namely the arctic waters around Greenland and Baffin Island. This was my favorite part of book. The author’s descriptions were sumptuous and made me feel I was really there. That was lacking in Blackfish City.

I wish the book had been more scientific and less anecdotal, though. The author’s journey was interesting but I really wanted to read about the whales, not his journey of discovery about them. And narwhals are interesting; as the author points out, they are the only species of whale exclusively dwelling in arctic waters (they don’t migrate out like some whales do) and therefore are the most impacted by global warming. They also have what no other animal on earth has: a spiral ivory tusk that spawned the legend of the unicorn. This aspect alone would have made an awesome book, as writer Christopher Kemp did with another whale byproduct, ambergris, which is, if you don’t know, a form of sperm whale poop that has undergone a sea change by floating in the ocean for months or years. The tusk does merit its own chapter focusing on its purpose for the whale. Scientists traditionally assumed, as many still do, that it is a sex-linked trait: male narwhals use it for dominance battles and to impress females. But this doesn’t explain why some female narwhals have it too, and why some whales even have two of them, and why no one has ever seen the whales actually fighting with it. The latest theory is that the intact tusk, being a giant tooth with pulp and nerves intact, acts as a sensory organ to gauge airflow, ocean chemistry, and air pressure, which, at the time of the book’s publication in 2013, was still very controversial.

narwhal, beluga, and narwhal-beluga hybrid skulls

From top to bottom, the skulls of a) a narwhal, b) a narwhal-beluga hybrid, and c) a beluga whale.

The book also mentioned narwhal-beluga hybrids, confirmed recently by the discovery of this skull. The beluga whale is the narwhal’s closest relative, and since the narwhal is toothless, and the beluga has teeth, the hybrid possessed its own unique dentition with which it was able to exploit a new food source and grow to maturity. This is exactly how new species arise.

In recent years narwhals have ridden the unicorn’s train of popularity to become cute, cuddly cultural icons in their own right. Notice, though, how the horn has moved to the forehead instead of piercing the whale’s upper lip…which would probably be too freaky for young children to contemplate.

And while it has no bearing on the content, I want to give a shout-out to the book’s cover designer, who has created a simple, effective, design that harks back to the three-color ink paper dustjackets of the 1950s which employed strong, eye-catching forms.

All in all I did enjoy my time with the book and it served to wash out the bad taste of Blackfish City, which you’ll probably hear more about.

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