Bowhead Whales Carrying History

A bowhead whale spyhops off the coast of western Sea of Okhotsk - Photo by Olga Shpak
A bowhead whale is a dark-colored whale without a dorsal fin. It can grow 14 to 18 m (46 to 59 ft) in length and can weigh from 75 to 100 tonnes. The bowhead has the largest mouth of any animal, but is considered to be the Arctic's gentle giant.

They live entirely in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, and do not migrate like other whales to low latitude waters to feed or reproduce. They are loners and are rarely seen in pods with other whales.

I read that in some mythologies whales were considered ancient wanderers who carried with them the history of the world. Bowhead whales are among the heaviest animals on Earth, second only to the blue whale.

The bowhead was also known as the Greenland right whale or Arctic whale and American whalemen called them the steeple-top, polar whale, or Russian whale.

Bowhead whales were killed in such large numbers by the American commercial whaling ships from 1848 to 1915 that only about 1000 of them remained. Thanks to protections for the endangered species, there are about 14,000 of the mammals in the Alaskan waters of the Arctic.

Bowhead whales have a huge skull and the name comes from the shape of the jaw, which resembles an archer’s bow. It can be more than 16 feet (5 m) long and makes up 30-40% of their total body length. They can use their skull to bust through thick ice. The Arctic waters are survivable because of their 17-19 inch (43-50 cm) thick blubber layer, which is the thickest of any whale species.

Instead of teeth, bowheads have about 350 large baleen plates that filter seawater allowing them to eat small animals, including zooplankton.

A recent discovery of a 200 year-old stone harpoon point in a whale confirms that some bowheads alive today may have been pursued by whale ships like the one that carried Herman Melville and could be older than the real-life whale that inspired him to write Moby Dick.

18th century engraving showing Dutch whalers hunting bowhead whales in the Arctic

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