Why Narwhals Can’t Live in Captivity [+ Where Can You See Them]

  • Post last modified:October 24, 2023
  • Post category:Narwhal
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Many marine mammals are kept in captivity for research and to attract tourists or enthusiasts who want to see animals in real life which are difficult to see in the wild. However, not all animals can be kept in captivity, how about narwhals?

No, narwhals cannot be kept in captivity because their large size and long tusk make it very easy for them to become stressed out and injure themselves, usually leading to death. There are currently no narwhals kept in captivity.

Keep on reading to find out more about the failed attempts of keeping narwhals in captivity, the reasons why they die, and how you can see one in real life.

Why Can’t Narwhals Be Kept In Captivity?

Narwhals require a lot of space. They are large marine mammals, with males reaching 13 to 18 feet (3.95 to 5.5 metres)1 (source: D.W.Macdonald and P. Barrett, Mammals of Europe, 2001). Narwhals also have a long tusk which can reach lengths of between 4.9 to 10.2 feet (1.5 to 3.1 metres)2 (source: How Stuff Works).

Its large body size, and long tusk, make it very easy for the organism to become stressed out and injure itself – quickly leading to its death. There are also a lot of negativities associated with keeping marine mammals in captivity, and potential legal issues after previous failed attempts.

Are There Any Narwhals in Captivity?

No, there are no narwhals currently in captivity. There have been two major attempts to keep narwhals in captivity but in both cases, all of the narwhals died within several months3 (source: Vancouver Sun, 2020).

One attempt to keep a narwhal in captivity was in 1970 by the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada. Here, 6 narwhals were hunted and transported in August 1970 to Canada from Grise Fiord after two years of hunting. Within the space of four months, all of these narwhals had died.

Many members of the public criticised the treatment of the animals by the Aquarium, and narwhal protection regulations were introduced shortly after in 19714 (source: CITES, 2004).

One year earlier in 1969, the first attempt to keep a narwhal in captivity was made. This was by the New York Aquarium in the United States of America. Interestingly, this single narwhal which was purchased from Inuit hunters in Grise Fiord was sold to the New York Aquarium because there were worries that it would not survive the flight to Vancouver, Canada. The narwhal was transported to New York in August 1969 and died one month later in their captivity5 (source: Vancouver Sun, 2020).

Where Can You See Narwhals?

It is possible to see narwhals in the wild. This means that you will have to travel to their natural habitat. Here you can participate in narwhal-watching boat trips, in which there is a dedicated effort to go to places where they are known to regularly occur.

There is no guarantee of seeing them due to many factors including the logistics of navigating through sea ice. Some of the key places to view narwhals are around Canada (Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet) or Greenland (Thule, Umankak)6 (source: Whale Trips).

Related Questions

Can You See A Narwhal In An Aquarium?

No, you can not see a living narwhal in an aquarium.

How Long Do Narwhals Live In Captivity?

The longest duration that a narwhal has been kept in captivity was 3-4 months. This narwhal was captured from Grise Fijord in late August 1970, and died on 26th December 1970. This narwhal was named Keela Luguk and was kept in the Vancouver Aquarium, Canada. Tragically, the Vancouver major called for it to be returned to the Arctic soon before it died.


  • Ryan Charles

    Ryan is a research scientist with a MSc in marine biology from Bangor University. His research focuses on developing an understanding of threatened species to assist conservation efforts. He is particularly interested in sharks and their relatives, alongside whales and other marine mammals.

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