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 canaries.”
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 bowhead calves.
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.