With its long, spiral tusk and spotted grey skin, the narwhal stands out from the pack of white St Lawrence River belugas. But its cousins don’t seem to mind, rubbing up against the narwhal and playing sexual games common among young male whales.
Although both are highly social animals, narwhals and belugas don’t typically interact when they meet in more northern waters.
Belugas generally live in more northern waters, but a fluke of evolution means a branch of the species remained in the St Lawrence River after the last ice age. While they’re closely related to narwhals, they do have different hunting and ranging habits.
Drones have given biologists greater access to the secret lives of whales, said Robert Michaud, the president of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, the organization that made the discovery.
“We see just a fraction of their lives,” Michaud said. “We now have more powerful tools to examine these animals, and actually see their interactions. The more we study these animals, the more we find them fascinating.”
The most intriguing question for researchers is what will happen to the young narwhal as it grows into an adult. Cross-breeding between the two species is believed to have occurred in some limited instances, but it’s rarely been documented.
“If this young narwhal spends his life with belugas, we’ll have a lot of information to learn and share,” Michaud said. “I hope I’ll be there to see it.”