In the summer of 2016, a research assistant on a boat in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River snapped some stunning images of a passing herd of beluga whales.
But it wasn’t until he shared those pictures with a colleague that he noticed one whale wasn’t like the rest, with its dark, speckled mantle … and is that a horn?
Could one of the world’s most elusive animals — a whale rarely seen even in its own Arctic haunts nearly 700 miles from the St. Lawrence — be swimming with belugas?
More sightings would confirm the spectacular truth: A narwhal, the fabled ‘unicorn of the Arctic,’ had joined the herd.
What’s more, the belugas seemed to treat the newcomer like family.
“They are in constant contact with each other,” Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), tells CBC News. “It's a like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games.”
The whale research organization has spotted the same juvenile narwhal frolicking among the belugas for the last three years. While the size of the herd has fluctuated from half a dozen to as many as 80, the narwhal has remained a constant.
The newcomer also appears to do everything possible to fit in with the adoptive family, including blowing bubbles back and forth — a behavior that indicates mood in belugas.
For this unlikely family, it seems to be a happy one.
Researchers at GREMM say the belugas treat the narwhal like one of their own, their interactions indistinguishable from those with other belugas. And that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering the enthusiastic social lives of both narwhals and belugas.
Even if the narwhal, with its iconic spiral horn, looks like nothing like belugas, it may literally be able to talk its way into their circle.
Native to colder climes like northern Canada, Russia and Greenland, the narwhal doesn’t typically stray so far south. Indeed, although their numbers are still likely in the tens of thousands, the animals are renowned recluses — particularly vulnerable to noise pollution. In fact, human activities, as well as the loss of sea ice, may play a critical role in driving the species to “near threatened” status by the World Wildlife Fund.
If this errant narwhal gets really cozy among the belugas, things may get even more interesting. While both species share a fondness for cold water and occasionally fraternize, there’s only been one very dubious case of a narwhal mating with a beluga.
That could change if all that beluga-narwhal friendliness should take a turn for something a little more intimate.
“If this young narwhal spends his life with belugas, we’ll have a lot of information to learn and share,” Michaud told The Guardian. “I hope I’ll be there to see it.”
The important thing, according to Harvard University whale expert Martin Nweeia isn’t how the narwhal got there — but the message these whales bear for all of us.
“I don't think it should surprise people,” he explains to the CBC. “I think it shows … the compassion and the openness of other species to welcome another member that may not look or act the same. And maybe that's a good lesson for everyone.”