The Dark Reason Why You Never See Narwhals In An Aquarium

By Abdul Rafay in Animals Published On 30th September 2023

Seeing a narwhal in an aquarium is highly unlikely, and for good reason. 


Only two attempts to maintain narwhals in captivity have occurred in North America, and both of them resulted in disaster and tragedy.


In the cold waters of the Atlantic Arctic, there is a species of toothed whale known as the narwhal. When the long spiraling tooth that extends from their head resembling a unicorn's horn is excluded, their bodies measure 3.95 to 5.5 meters (13 to 18 feet) long.

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A lot of their behavior is still unknown due to their quiet and wary personalities, which makes it challenging to research them.

Image credit: NOAA

In 1969, the New York Aquarium in Coney Island became the first aquarium to ever house a narwhal after refusing to back down in the face of a challenge.


The name Umiak, which refers to the Inuit canoe frequently used to hunt the species in the High Arctic, was given to the young calf. The Inuits who seized it claimed that after they slaughtered the animal's mother for food, it accompanied them back to camp in their canoe.

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The narwhal was placed in a tank with a female "white whale," most likely a beluga whale, who served as Umiak's stepmother. According to reports, staff fed the animal enormous volumes of milk flavored with chopped clams each day, which seemed to keep it content.

But it only spent a little time at the aquarium. The New York Times at the time said that Umiak passed away from pneumonia on October 7, 1969, little than a year after it had been brought to the aquarium.


In 1970, the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada succeeded in bringing narwhals into captivity for the second time. Their endeavors began in 1968 when Murray Newman, their ambitious director, thought that bringing narwhals to the major metropolis could spark public interest in the elusive animal and aid in their protection.

According to the Vancouver Sun newspaper, Newman went on a two-week hunt for a narwhal in 1968 with a crew of sailors led by Inuit guides off the coast of Baffin Island. 1970 saw Newman return to the region for another unsuccessful three-week hunt.


But ultimately they were able to purchase a young male narwhal from a group of Inuit hunters in Grise Fiord.

As narwhals are known as "qilalugaq" in various Inuktitut dialects, he was given the name Keela Luguk. 

The Vancouver Aquarium was able to catch two female narwhals and three calves within a week of the narwhal's arrival in August 1970, and they were put in the tank with Keela Luguk.

Although the achievement was at first celebrated by the public and the media, things swiftly went south. 


The three calves passed away in September 1970 in less than a month. The two females also passed dead by November. As public outcry grew, the mayor of Vancouver made requests for Keela Luguk to be released back into the wild, but Newman rejected such calls.

Eventually, on December 26, news of Keela Luguk's passing surfaced. 

It's not quite known why narwhals don't do well in captivity. Their nearest living relative, the beluga whale, is frequently observed in aquarium tanks where they appear to lead (relatively) happy lives.


However, it is clear that narwhals are incredibly delicate creatures. The 10 million nerve endings in their recognizable "tusk" enable them to detect minute variations in temperature, pressure, particle gradients, and many other factors. 

Studies have also shown that the species is very sensitive to noise produced by humans. It only takes one ship to significantly alter its behavior when it passes through its habitat.

It seems unlikely that another attempt to keep a narwhal in an aquarium will ever be made. 


Thanks in large part to the documentary Blackfish, which exposed SeaWorld's operations and those of their captive orcas, there has been a significant shift in the public's attitude toward marine creatures kept in captivity in recent years.

It's unquestionably a good thing that the public's interest in captive whales has dried up based on how horribly these two initiatives were handled.