This Narwhal Who Lost Its Way Is Taken in by a Pod of Belugas

An interspecies friendship between a narwhal, who lost its way, and a pod of belugas shows that, despite our differences, even the least likely of us can become friends.

Sep 17, 2018

An unusual visitor showed up during a routine observation by a marine research group while studying a pod of belugas. Scientists did a double take when they spotted a narwhal, with its dark grey skin and jutting tusk, swimming alongside snowy white belugas in the St. Lawrence River in Canada.

According to Robert Michaud, president and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), the wayward whale acted just like one of the boys. "This young narwhal is interacting with the belugas as if he was just another beluga, swimming with belugas," he shared.

The non-profit conservation group, GREMM, based out of Tadoussac, Quebec, spends hours at sea conducting research on whales living in the St. Lawrence, a river that flows north-easterly through Canada and the United States connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. During a routine observation in 2016, the group first spotted the narwhal among a pod of juvenile belugas.

Michaud explained that the friendship, although rare, doesn’t come as a huge surprise considering the shared habits of narwhals and belugas. Both species live in large, complex family groups and have similar sizes and lifespans. In fact, the narwhal’s behaviors were virtually identical with the belugas as he played and interacted with them, suggesting that the pod had fully accepted him as one of their own. The interaction between the belugas and the narwhal, although not surprising, reveal that whales exhibit even more complex social behaviors than previously thought.

Narwhals, a medium-sized whale species that range from 3.95 to 5.5 m (13 to 18 ft) in size, typically live year-round in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, and Russia. This particular narwhal ventured 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south from its usual habit.

Marianne Marcoux, a marine mammal researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, guessed that the narwhal must have gotten lost. "This little narwhal is a lucky one because he found some buddies," she observed.

"They need to create associations in order to survive in this environment, so they need to have co-operation between them, so if you want you can call it friendship...but I prefer to call it social relationships.”

Belugas represent one of the few species on earth that go through menopause or stop reproducing before the end of their lives. Researchers believe that older generations remain with the pod in order to pass down knowledge to the younger whales.

Marcoux recalled only one other such instance in which she observed a beluga swimming with a group of narwhals. At the time, she didn’t know if the animal had joined the group or was just passing by.

As for the young narwhal, he remains in good health, and drone footage taken in early summer 2018 shows the narwhal swimming alongside its newly adopted family. Researchers look ahead wondering whether the narwhal will mate with one of the belugas and reproduce a hybrid baby. Although scientists have found narwhal-beluga skeletons, they have never observed them in the wild.

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Working from her laptop as a freelance writer, Allison lives as a digital nomad, exploring the world while sharing positivity and laughter. She is a lover of language, travel, music, and creativity with a degree in Chinese language and literature.