Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)
Life is slow in the Arctic. Glaciers grow and wane, icebergs break off and float languidly towards destruction, and whales live cold, slow-paced lives. The big, bulky bowhead whale has a maximum speed of 2 to 4 knots when swimming. More amazingly, it is believed to be able to reach an age well above a century, maybe as much as two.¹ This would make it the longest living mammal in the world.
Due to extensive whaling, there are only approximately 8,000 bowhead whales in existence today.
The bowhead is that other giant whale, "the rotund one" when compared to the more rectangular shape of the sperm whale. The whale is mostly dark grey in colour, except for the underside of its jaw, which is whitish. It can also have white spots on its belly. The bowhead whale can become up to 20 metres long, however, the average is about 12, with the females longer than the males.
The whale's curved, huge head is about 40% of the whole whale's length, giving it a stocky and slightly clumsy look. The head is split by the eerie grin of baleens which it uses in order to feed. Behind the mouth are small eyes.
Eyes are not of much use in the darkness of the northern winter nights. Therefore the bowhead whale has developed a large repertoire of calls and songs, which is probably used to communicate, especially during mating and migration. The voice of Balaena, which covers seven octaves, has been described as a drawn-out hooting or humming sound.²
The bowhead whales live near pack ice throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They migrate seasonally between their various habitats, which can be found in in the Okhotsk, Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas, the Hudson Bay area, between Greenland and Canada, and in the north of Europe.
To many people, the bowhead was the whale. To the Inuit people it supplied food, light and building materials. To European whale hunters, it represented wealth. While the Inuits hunted the whale for 2,000 years, always honouring it in their legends, commercial whalers told stories about how much they could get for the
blubber and bones of the large number of whales they were going to kill. Their exploitation could only last for 200 years.
The first bowhead-whaling expedition began in 1611, near Spitsbergen in Norway. In addition to being killed for their oil and meat, whales were popular as raw material for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and buggy whips. Whaling was so intensive that it devastated the core population in each area where it took place. By the start of the 20th century, the number of bowheads had become so low that hunting ceased to be economically viable (also, corsets had gone out of fashion). The International Whaling
Commission finally declared the bowhead protected in 1937. Today, it is only hunted by native peoples of the Arctic, who use more traditional, less eradicating means.
An Inupiaq myth of says that the bowhead whale was made by the Creator as a gift to mankind. He made it so that every spring, the whales would appear amid the melting ice, waiting for the hunters' harpoons. Commercial whaling almost made an end to that myth, but not quite. Nine villages of Alaskan Inuit are still able to hunt the whale, using ancient umiaks, boats covered with walrus-skin. A whaling captain earns the respect of the whole community, and a captured whale is an event for everyone to celebrate.
The bowhead, one of the largest animals in the world, feeds on some of the smallest. It harvests plankton by scooping water into its mouth, then slowly filtering it out through its baleen, a sort of natural strainer which replaces teeth. The bowhead has about 300 black baleen plates. They can become as long as 4 metres, which is longer than any other whale's.
Summertime is feeding time. Long sunny days means a growth in plankton, which means more food for the bowhead. The whale eats an estimated 1,800 kg of zooplankton during the feeding season: copepods, amphipods, euphausiids (krill), and pteropods, as well as epibenthic and some benthic organisms. Much of the intake is stored as blubber, which is then used as an energy reserve during winter.
Usually the whales eat alone, but they can also form groups of up to fourteen individuals which travel together in a V formation, filtering water as they go.
Bowheads are difficult animals to study. They spend large periods submerged under water or ice, using diving as an escape route when they feel threatened. The whales are also shy, tending to evade boats and helicopters arriving to study them. Considering their previous experiences with the bloodthirsty humans, that is not very difficult to understand.
The whales lead solitary lives or stay in groups of two or three. During migration they travel in larger groups, apparently segregated by age. They can stay under water for up to an hour, although more commonly they are submerged for 5-10 minutes. The whales then surfaces to breathe air for 2 minutes. The back of the whales can often be seen above the water when they are basking, and before a dive they will lift their tail and sometimes even leap, like extremely large and stocky dolphins.
Bowhead calves are usually born during spring migration (April and early June). Pregnancy is thought to last for about a year, and a newborn calf is 4 metres long. The calf usually nurses for about a year. Swimming close to its mother, it is often carried in her slip stream.
While male fertility has not been well documented, a female whale is mature when it has grown to about 15 metres, between 10 and 15 years of age. The females will then give birth with a break of three to seven years between each.
Cheetahs and other large predators, dependent on their agility to survive, take care never to get wounded. Bowheads couldn't care less. With their thick layer of blubber they are unlikely to feel little scratches, and because of their cold surroundings they are unlikely to get infections. Scientists often use the differing patterns of scars to identify individual whales.
Scars are usually the result of accidents with boats, attacks from killer whales, or breaking encounters with ice. The whales regularly use their great bulk to break through the ice in order to get some fresh air. They are certainly able to break through 20 centimeters of ice, some reports even say they got through 60.
Sometimes the whales become trapped in the ice, and die. Other times, killer whale attacks are successful.
Apart from that, causes of death are little known.
Despite the restrictions in whaling, whale numbers have not increased much in the following period. There may be several reasons for this. Life and reproduction is slow for these whales, and 70 years may not be long enough to recover from two centuries of intensive butchering. There are also other new factors in their environment. The noise and increased traffic of oil drilling may scare the whales away from their habitats. Oil spills and toxins accumulating in the whales' blubber poses another unknown risk to their recovery. However, stopping the killing has had some effect, and the whales have moved from being on the list of endangered animals to being merely "threatened".
In case you wondered: Mysticetus reportedly means Moustached, from Greek Mystax.