The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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General Characteristics

The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that belongs to the family Monodontidae. The only other member of this family is the beluga.

Need Photographer Narval 2


Adult male narwhals reach lengths of up to 460 cm and weights of 1645 kg, while females are smaller at up to 400 cm and 900 kg. The tusk of a male narwhal can exceed 2 m in length.


One calf every 3 years. Sexual maturity between ages 9 to 9.


Narwhal can live for up to 100 years.


The narwhal spend their entire lives in cold Arctic waters. They are almost always associated with sea ice, except during late summer in some areas.


Narwhals feed primarily on fish and squid, particularly polar cod (Boreogadus saida), Arctic cod (Arctogadus glacialis), Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) and squid of genus Gonatus.


 (Photo: NAMMCO archive)


Latin: Monodon monoceros
Faroese: Náhvalur
Greenlandic: Qilalugaq qernertaq
Icelandic: Náhvalur
Norwegian: Narhval

English: Narwhal

The English name "narwhal" is derived from the Old Norsk word nar which means 'corpse', perhaps in reference to the animal's grey colour, thought to resemble that of a drowned sailor (Heide-Jørgensen and Laidre 2006). 

General characteristics

Narwhals have stout, torpedo-shaped bodies with a low dorsal ridge in place of a dorsal fin, and a concave-shaped tail fin. They lack the extremely flexible neck and well-defined beak of their closest relative, the beluga. Like the beluga, the narwhal has short paddle-shaped front flippers.

At birth, narwhals are grey to greyish-blue in colour. They become darker and more mottled as they grow older, with white patches developing from their abdomen to up over their backs. Adult narwhals are usually light grey in colour, with a mottled pattern of darker markings over a lighter background. Very old narwhal become almost completely white.

Male narwhals develop a tusk, which is a modified canine tooth that grows out the left side of the jaw, twisting anti-clockwise to form a spiral. Occasionally male narwhals have two tusks, and a small percentage of females also have a tusk.

J Blair Dunn narwhal partial img0074 crop

Photo: J. Blair Dunn, Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

J Blair Dunn narwhal and ice img0038 crop

Photo: J. Blair Dunn, Fisheries and Oceans, Canada


Video of narwhals travelling and becoming temporarily entrapped in the ice.

Video discussing the possible functions of the narwhal's tusk.





Diving with narwhals!

More underwater video of narwhals.