Glorious to behold, belugas, narwhals, and bowheads are the three true arctic
whales, although others are occasionally spotted here in summer. Of the three arctic
whales, belugas are the most numerous and widely distributed. More than 60,000, and
perhaps as many as 100,000, live in arctic and subarctic waters.
The snow-white beluga (qinalugaq or qilalugaq) stands
out conspicuously in dark waters. Congregating in large numbers in the same areas every
summer, these small-toothed whales are also the most gregarious and most vocal of the
arctic whales, spending hours rollicking in shallow waters, chirping, trilling, and
clicking to one another in apparent delight. Early whalers actually dubbed them "sea
Belugas, which reach about four to five metres in length, are found
throughout Nunavut. They winter in areas of open water or shifting ice, where they have
access to air, moving northward with spring.
The narwhal (tuugaalik or allanguaq), the mysterious
unicorn of the sea, also boasts significant Nunavut populations, though its range is more
restricted than the beluga. The majority winter in northern Davis Strait and southern
Baffin Bay. Toward the end of June they head for the fertile waters of Lancaster Sound and
the deep bays and fiords of northern Baffin Island and beyond. A distinct population
spends the winter in Hudson Strait, moving into northwestern Hudson Bay in spring.
Narwhals average four metres in length and weigh nearly two tonnes.
Yet it is not this mottled whale's girth that gives the creature its reputation, but its
unforgettable ivory tusk that twists from its upper jaw like the overgrown tooth it really
is. Hundreds of years ago, reports of the existence of unicorns were fostered by
serendipitous discoveries of narwhal tusks by imaginative European whalers.
The large majority of tusked narwhals are males, although females
occasionally grow them as well. The purpose of this appendage is still unknown, although
different theories have been championed for centuries. Most often, the tusk is used in
displays of aggressive behavior; scientists believe they may be used to determine social
rank, much like the tusk of the walrus.
The bowhead whale (arviq) is the giant of the arctic whales,
reaching 18 metres in length and 100 tonnes. These gentle behemoths were hunted to near
extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s; to this day their populations in the eastern
Arctic remain dangerously low, thus their endangered status. There were once more than
11,000 bowheads in these waters; today, most biologists agree there are no more than
1,000. Nonetheless, the recently settled Nunavut Land Claims Agreement paved the way for
the legal harvest of a bowhead for the first time in a generation; in August 1996, a group
of hunters representing a cross-section of Nunavut took part in this historic hunt. A
second bowhead was harvested in 1998.
Although not considered true arctic whales because they do not
winter in the Arctic, killer whales are often associated with Nunavut because of their
summer migrations. These carnivores are very deserving of their rather intimidating name,
preying on fish, seals, and even small whales. It is believed that one of the reasons
Nunavut's bowhead whales have not rebounded is because killer whales are preying on
Killer whales tend to follow seal and whale populations north when
the ice begins to break. They are found in Foxe Basin, Hudson Bay, Hudson and Davis
straits, Lancaster and Eclipse sounds, and Admiralty Inlet.
Other whales visiting Nunavut's waters in summer are blue whales and
sperm whales. Blue whales, the world's largest living mammals, can reach lengths in excess
of 30 metres and weights of 100 tonnes. These endangered creatures sometimes venture into
Davis Strait, the northernmost limit of their range in Canadian waters. Sperm whales, the
largest of all toothed whales, are also occasional summer visitors to Davis Strait. Only
bull sperm whales travel to arctic waters, however.
*Reproduced from an article titled "Marine Mammals" by
Mike Vlessides contained in the Nunavut Handbook.