A bowhead whale.


Last month, the New York Times published an article illustrating the start of the traditional whale hunting season in Barrow, Alaska. The hunt is allowed despite an international moratorium on whale hunting because it is carried out for subsistence purposes. Indeed, the whale hunters, after killing a massive bowhead whale, distributed the muktuk (whale meat) to members of their community, continuing a practice that has lasted for thousands of years. The photos may be hard to stomach for people sensitive to blood and whaling, but the article reveals a more human side of the hunt than is often portrayed. The article states that the Inupiat harvest less than one percent of the endangered bowhead whale population each year. In Alaska, a total of ten villages take part in the hunt each year.The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowhead whales numbers about 10,500, slightly less than the entire population worldwide. The majority of whales live in the Eastern Arctic, where  the Inuit are allowed to hunt one whale every two years. Studies showing that the population has recovered since the days of commercial whaling have led the Inuit to push for a higher quota.

Bowhead whales have a lengthy lifespan and could actually be the longest-living mammals on the planet. Ivory and diamond-tipped harpoon points from early 19th-century whale hunts have been found embedded deep in the whales’ blubber. Combined with chemical dating of the changes of aspartic acid in the whales’ eyes, scientists were able to determine that one bowhead whale lived to be 211 years old, swimming the Arctic seas from the time of President Thomas Jefferson to the Clinton era. The reason for the whales’ longevity could be the cold waters of the Arctic. Without plentiful food resources, whales build up immense bodies that store fat and are good at keeping warm. It would be interesting to compare other animal species in the Arctic, including humans, to their counterparts to the south to see if their lifespan is longer.

Other Links

“Bowhead whales may be the world’s oldest mammals,” Alaska Science Forum

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