Keep Narwhals Real!

Heather McElhatton

Part of A Beautiful World

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Narwhals Are Real

The narwhal (Monodon Monoceros) is one of the rarest whales in the world. An Arctic species, narwhals are elusive and mysterious, and very distinct in appearance because of their long tusk, which actually is a tooth that grows from the upper jaw of males. The tusks can reach 9-10 feet long. They're small and chubby as far as whales go, weighing up to 4,200 pounds and growing around 17-22 feet in length. Narwhals' conservation status is "near-threatened" with only about 80,000 currently swimming in the oceans, and almost all of them reside in the icy waters of Baffin Bay, up by the Arctic Circle, which is home to 90% of the worlds narwhal population.

Their low numbers is one reason Ian Q. Rowan is worried about narwhals. He's working on a documentary about narwhals called, Keep Narwhals Real. "They're infinitely fascinating," he says. "For years nobody knew what their tusks were for. Then a Harvard dental expert discovered they're way more complicated than anybody thought." That Harvard dental expert is Dr. Martin Nweeia. He's a country dentist in Sharon, Connecticut and a clinical professor at Harvard. He's a National Geographic Explorer and also one of the world's foremost authorities on the narwhal. "They have the king of teeth" he says. "The most amazing tooth in the animal kingdom, by far."

The King of Teeth

For years, the narwhal tusk was thought to be an insensate horn, used for hunting or mating displays but nobody knew for sure, until Dr. Martin Nweeia figured it out. By gathering ancient Inuit knowledge and combining it with cutting-edge research, he discovered a narwhal tusk is actually a tooth. Specifically, the left tooth on an adult male, which grows up to nine feet long, over half the narwhal's body. The tooth is perfectly straight at its axis, but spirals left on the surface. It's also weirdly soft and flexible, which Narweeia says the Inuit had told him narwhal tusks could bend, but he didn't believe it until years later, after it was painstakingly proven in a lab. "Everything they tell me turns out to be true," he says. "It takes us years to find out what they already know."

"The most stunning discovery about narwhal tusks explained why they were packed tight with complex nerve bundles that connected directly to their brains and auditory systems. Their tusks are actually sensory organs, like an eye or an ear, processing a wide array of external information. Narwhal tusks can detect temperature, sound, motion, barometric pressure, water salinity and the presence of both mates and fish. It also has sonar capabilities…like a long ivory antenna. Imagine if you had a single tooth that kept growing after you were born, just split through your lip and grew straight out into space, until it was half as long as you are tall, while helping you find dates, locate dinner, send messages to friends and get back home. Then you'd be as cool as a narwhal.

An Extraordinary World of Sound

"But it's the acoustic world of the narwhal that impressed Dr. Christopher W. Clark. He's a senior scientist at Cornell University Bioacoustics lab and he says a narwhal's hearing is extraordinary. "Their auditory cortex is ten times the size of a humans," he says. "They can hear the world in a way we can't even comprehend. They are completely dependent on sound and listening across large distances in order to survive." Without their exceptional auditory abilities, they would not be able to mate, hunt, or raise calves, which explains the often used expression, "A deaf whale is a dead whale." It's also the reason narwhals are in trouble, and why Ian Rowan in making his documentary. "Narwhals are on the brink of extinction," Rowan says. "It keeps me up at night."

A Loud Threat

"Large deposits of fossil fuel are often found beneath deep cold water, making Baffin Bay an ideal hunting ground for gas and oil survey crews. These cold dark-blue waters reach sudden and extraordinary depths, some over two-thousand feet deep and the average water temperature remains near zero year-round. This is the perfect place for narwhals to feed and calve their young…it's also the perfect place to drill for oil, geographically speaking.

"But for centuries, Baffin Bay was protected from surveys and seismic mapping and industrial development, mostly because of its unique ability to defend itself. The remote location, inhospitable environment, and un-navigable terrain made surveys difficult.

"The ice made drilling impossible. Enormous horizon-sized slabs of white ice locked up the bay and locked people out. Open water froze quickly, paving itself over with heavy capstones of slow solemn ice, making navigation treacherous. Moving water would freeze and vanish, whiteouts blinded travelers and drifting snow buried landmarks, shifting pack ice blocked exits and crushed boat hulls. Sudden storms tossed icebergs and boats violently at one another like toys in a tub. Boats couldn't navigate the water, Crews couldn't survey sites, and drills couldn't get through the ice. This is how Baffin Bay kept itself protected for so long, by hiding itself under a thick blanket of quiet cold ice, which kept it safe for a very long time.

"But now the ice is receding. As sea temperatures rise and ice packs recede, the Arctic Circle becomes an increasingly easier area to survey. Most people know that drilling for oil under the ocean involves environmental risks, but what many don't realize is that just looking for oil can put underwater ecosystems at risk, especially seismic surveys.

Seismic Mapping

"Seismic surveying is an outdated acoustic mapping technique used to locate deposits of gas and oil buried deep beneath the ocean floor. "There's lots of other ways to find oil," Rowan says. "This is just the cheapest." A fleet of survey boats drive back and forth across a target area, each dragging large arrays seismic air guns behind them in the water. These air guns blast the water with high-frequency explosions every 15 seconds, at an ear-splintering 250 decibels, twice the level humans can withstand. "Air guns are designed to be loud," Dr. Clark says, "Because the sound has to travel long distances down through the water to reach the ocean floor." They'll have to be in Baffin Bay, Parts of which are over 2,000 feet deep. "Air guns are so loud that they disturb, injure or kill marine life, harm commercial fisheries, and disrupt coastal economies."

In 2015 The Canadian Government approved plans for a massive seismic survey in Baffin Bay and surrounding areas, despite urgent warnings from marine biologists and international wildlife conservation groups. Local Inuit tribes mounted a legal campaign last year, led by the Mayor of Clyde River, Jerry Natanine, who have seen first-hand the impact of seismic blasting on narwhals and other marine mammals. Reports of seals going deaf, narwhals being scared out of critical feeding and calving grounds.

"The blasts planned for Baffin Bay will need to reach the extraordinary depths of that region, requiring exceeding 250 decibels, (more than twice what human ears can stand) that are repeated every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, for five years. During Seismic mapping, Seismic air guns are towed behind ships and shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water and miles into the seabed, which reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits. These blasts harm marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and other wildlife.

"Dr. Clark says these blasts are designed to be as loud as physically possible, so they can travel long distances and reach the sea floor. "It's so loud, it boils the water. It hits your head, your sinus cavity, your chest, it's shocking. The sound travels incredible distances, I've recorded seismic blasts off the coast of Virginia that were being set off in Ireland." Other reported environmental impacts on marine life include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach stranding and death. For whales and dolphins, which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce, being able to hear is a life or death matter. "A deaf whale is a dead whale."

"The Inuit Community at Clyde River relies heavily on the narwhals migration to survive during the winter. There limited access to food in this tiny remote arctic village, the people here literally hunt to eat. "We asked for an environmental impact assessment," says Jerry Natanine, Mayor of Clyde River and Inuit Elder. "But they told us no." They have attempted to stop the blasting legally, but has so far been unsuccessful. "If the narwhals die, it will be the end of our community."

"Seismic mapping companies believe the safety measures they use negate damage. They employ techniques like "slow starts," where decibel blasts are increased slowly, giving marine life a chance to leave the area. They also place watch boats around blasting perimeters to watch for whales and adhere to regulated mitigation zones around blasting areas to reduce harm. Environmentalists say none of this is near enough, but it does follow current seismic mapping laws, laws which many feel are outdated and inadequate.

"One reason seismic mapping is being allowed in Baffin Bay is a significant lack of scientific data about the harmful effects of seismic testing on narwhals. The research has simply not been done. "This research is very hard to do," Dr. Nweeia says. "These animals live in the most remote areas and you can't easily do field testing. And even if you could do it, you won't be able to get a permit to conduct such tests. We shouldn't need to prove it. Should we? We all know it's hurting them, the scientists know and the Inuit do too, especially the ones who've lived with seismic blasting in the past. They say the whales and the seals go deaf. Narwhals flee the area, run far from migration routes and wind up trapped under ice in unfamiliar areas. We know it hurting them, it's just that don't have the scientific proof."

"That's because in order to prove seismic blasting harms and/or kills narwhals (or any marine mammal) scientists would basically have to remove a narwhal from the ocean, put it in a controlled tank environment and then deafen, damage and kill it with sound, in order to prove that's what happens during seismic blasting. Nobody's going to do that and nobody's going to get permission to do that. This means there's no scientific data to prove seismic surveying harms marine life, so lawmakers don't have the data they need to make new laws, and scientists don't have the means to get it.

Crowdsourcing scientific studies?

"One idea to obtain required data is to re-create a narwhal ear and its marine environment 'virtually' and then use physics to scientifically test it. "I could do that, I absolutely could create a virtual narwhal ear," says Dr. Darlene Ketten, a marine biologist and neuroanatomist specializing in underwater hearing and mechanisms of hearing loss.

She's documented damaged auditory systems of marine mammals, including beached whales with ruptured eardrums. But in order to virtually re-create a narwhal's ear, she needs the funding. "It would cost me about twenty-thousand dollars to create a virtual narwhal ear, and the problem is there's not much money for marine mammal studies. The big funders focus on human research and the environmental groups help fund individual situations. Crowdsourcing and Kickstarter funds for stopping this blasting or saving that particular place, when what we really need is to start funding is scientific studies that produce critical data that could protect entire species, instead of singular events."

Blasting Begins in June 2016

"As of now, the blasting in Baffin Bay in scheduled to begin in a few months, after the ice melts, in June 2016. The Norway-based energy consortium of oil and gas exploration companies, comprised of Petroleum Geo-Services, TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company ASA and Multiklient Invest AS were granted a license by the National Energy Board to use seismic testing up and down the Davis Strait. In the meantime, there are no environmental laws to stop them and the Inuit community of Clyde River's case was dismissed by Federal Court of Appeal judges last year. One remaining light shines - the community has since sought leave to appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada and the Clyde River Inuit community is still waiting to see if the Supreme Court of Canada will hear this case. Until then, people are gathering to show support.

"I'm touched by how many people have joined our cause," Jerry Natanine smiles. "People care about us. They care about the animals. We thought we were tiny and insignificant, but this has turned into a big movement, a movement of love."


Dr. Martin Nweeia
Dr. Martin T. Nweeia is a National Fellow of the Explorers Club and was featured on the BBC World program Outlook, which focused on the importance of teeth in different cultures. The dentist and explorer has led two dental research expeditions. The first, to the Colombian Amazon in 1977, received an Explorers Club grant. Dr. Nweeia has also received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society. He was a Joseph Silber Fellow of the American Cancer Society and Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently a clinical professor at Harvard school of dentistry and a Research Associate in the Marine Mammal Program at the Smithsonian.

Dr. Darlene Ketten
Darlene Ketten is a marine biologist and neuroanatomist specializing in underwater hearing and mechanisms of hearing loss. She received a B.A. /B.S. from Washington University (Biology and French), M.S. from Massachusetts Institute Technology. (Earth and Planetary Sciences/Biological Oceanography), and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions (jointly awarded in Neuroanatomy, Behavioral Ecology, and Experimental Radiology). She currently holds joint appointments as a Professor of Imaging and Applied Physics at Curtin University, Scientist emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School. She is the Chief Scientist and Director of the WHOI Computerized Scanning and Imaging Facility.

Dr. Christopher W. Clark
Dr. Christopher W. Clarrk MSEE, PhD, is an Imogene P. Johnson Senior Scientist, and Director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Dept. of Neurobiology at Cornell University. Cornell's Bioacoustics Research Program develops digital technology, equipment and software to record and analyze the sounds of wildlife around the globe. By listening to wildlife, they aim to advance the understanding of animal communication and monitor the health of wildlife populations, providing policy makers, industries, and governments with information that helps minimize the impact of human activities on wildlife and natural environments. Christopher's passions include all sounds in the natural world, conveying the beauty of sound visually, conserving wildlife, the poetry of music and music of poetry.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Martin Nweeia and The Smithsonian. Illustrations courtesy of Indian Country, Today Media Network.

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