Narwhals display sophisticated sword fighting techniques

No one has ever observed narwhal behavior at depths so deep that sunlight never penetrates. Until now.

Scientists have long believed that male narwhals use their tusks to establish a social hierarchy in their pod. But a scientist announced on April 1, 2012 that narwhals use their tusks in competitive sport. Dr. Wills Derekson witnessed remarkable behavior he described as “sophisticated sword fighting” during a dive in a submersible craft off the coast of Greenland.

A full-body sketch of a narwhal. Image credit: Pearson Scott Foresman via Wikimedia Commons.

Narwhals, known as unicorns of the sea, are most often found in Arctic waters off northeastern Canada and Greenland. Males have a long tusk that extends from their jaw – almost half the whale’s tail-to-mouth length. This tusk is actually a tooth that grows out in a counterclockwise spiral pattern.

Narwhal tusks at a museum in Greenland, shown next to a man, illustrate the enormous size of the overgrown tooth. Image credit: Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons.

During summer, male narwhals in Arctic waters can be seen crossing tusks with each other, an activity called “tusking.” At the same time, the whales make whistling sounds. Scientists have long thought this behavior showed males jockeying for dominance in the pod. The whales have never been seen using their tusks aggressively.

Then again, no one ever observed narwhal behavior at depths so deep that sunlight never penetrates. Until now.

Derekson borrowed a deep sea submersible craft from a billionaire friend whose name he would not disclose. Since it was dark down there in the ocean depths, Derekson used a high-resolution infrared video camera that works by imaging the heat generated by these warm-blooded animals. Derekson claims that the hour of video he captured was nothing short of utterly incredible.

He said:

There were two male narwhals engaging each other in a sword fight, using their tusks! A few others nearby, a mix of narwhals and beluga whales, appeared to be spectators. What surprised me was the agility of these enormous creatures. The dueling narwhals were using their fins to rapidly propel back and forth, left and right, up and down, as they clashed tusks. One even did a back flip, he was definitely the more athletic of the two.

It reminded me of the sword fighting scene in the movie, “The Princess Bride,” between Westley and Inigo Montoya.

The spectator whales, Derekson added, appeared to be paying close attention, occasionally emitting whistling-like sounds during particularly deft maneuvers by the competing whales, as if to cheer them on.

Said Derekson:

The dueling narwhals took a few breaks, and despite being in very close proximity, they made no threatening moves or surprise attacks. Instead, they seemed to be flexing their bodies, like they were stretching themselves, and occasionally emitted whistling sounds as if chatting with each other.

During the duels, any contact between the tusk of one whale with the body of its opponent seemed very controlled, as if the whale on the offense deftly drew back just in time before its tusk could inflict injury. It seemed more like a tap, as if to say, “gotcha!”

Narwhals breaching near ice. Image credit: Glenn Williams/NIST via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been long known that whales and dolphins display a higher level of intelligence compared to other animals, at least by human standards. Could narwhal whale society have developed competitive games, just like humans? Had Derekson witnessed a sword fighting tournament complete with cheering marine spectators? These observations, captured on video, could revolutionize our understanding of narwhals.

Unfortunately, the video no longer exists. Derekson forgot to turn off the camera; it had been operating on a continuous recording loop that over-wrote the narwhal tournament. EarthSky asked Derekson if he planned another submersible trip to capture more sword fighting narwhals on video. He muttered:

I don’t think they’ll be letting me take the submersible out there anytime soon.

He would not elaborate further.

Bottom line:
Narwhals displaying sportsmanship-like behavior were observed by a scientist in the deep ocean from a submersible craft. The whales appeared to be engaged in a sophisticated sword fighting match that even involved a few spectators cheering them on. Dr. Wills Derekson, the scientist who made these astonishing observations, said that the dueling whales appeared quite friendly towards each other and went out of their way to avoid injury. Unfortunately, video recordings of this extraordinary behavior was accidently destroyed. By the way, happy April 1, 2012, from all of us at EarthSky!

From the archives. April 1, 2011: Unusual bow-tie penguins discovered off southern Chile

Shireen Gonzaga