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The oldest living mammal on earth

Text by David Reid
Photos by Doc White

We are amazed and fascinated when we encounter any ancient building or structure, or read a centuries-old text. History speaks to us; it tells us where we’ve come from. The lessons learned from studying history enable us to look forward and (one hopes) plan for the future. Where we are going is tied inextricably to where we’ve been.

Ancient texts, buildings and structures do not, however, connect with us the same way as our fellow human beings or animals (with whom we share this planet) do. We (humans and animals) tend not to live as long as the aforementioned — or do we?

The oldest human was a French woman, Jeanne Calment. Passing away in 1997, she lived for an incredible 122 years. Animals, such as elephants and some of the great whales, can live between 70 and 90 years of age. The oldest animal (on record) is a giant tortoise that lived on Tonga, an island in the South Pacific. At the time of its death in 1965, this remarkable animal was verified as being 189 years old. Quite remarkable by any standard!

In the Arctic, as long ago as the early 1600s, the commercial hunting of one of the truly great whales, the Bowhead whale (Balaena mystictus), Arviq or Arvik (Inuktitut and Inuvia – luktun), Agkhovik (Inupiat), Akhgvopik (Yupik) and Ittiv (Chukchi) began in earnest. Whaling continued on a massive scale until the early 1900s primarily in and around the Norwegian controlled Arctic Archipelago of Spitsbergen (Svalbard).

These islands located between Greenland and Norway are surrounded by some of the coldest, deepest and most food-rich waters in the world, the perfect environment for these large, slow moving whales to exist. To supply the insatiable demand from the ever-growing towns and cities of Europe, hundreds of thousands of whales were killed, harvested by fleets of increasingly efficient ships using the latest in tracking and harpoon technology. By the late 1800s the number of Bowheads being caught in nearly all Arctic waters was falling off significantly. So much so, in fact, that the number of whales being caught, and the revenue derived from them, barely covered the costs associated with provisioning and crewing the ships setting sail for the hunt.

The Bowhead whales officially became a protected species in 1937 when the International Whaling Commission granted a moratorium on commercial hunting, with the objective to allow its decimated numbers a chance to make some kind of recovery. Rights and permission were given to Native people throughout the Arctic regions (particularly in Alaska and Canada) to continue and maintain sustainable hunts.

In Nunavut, as part of the negotiated land claims agreement, Bowhead whales continue to be harvested. The hunt(s) are strictly regulated and controlled and, given the increasing numbers of Bowheads in Nunavut waters, the annual hunt of two or three animals is considered sustainable. For the annually chosen communities, the hunt brings many things, including a connection to a rich and historic past. In many of the communities involved, Bowhead muktuk hasn’t been tasted in over 70 years. Being such a large animal, many hunters are involved, often bringing together several generations within the community that might not otherwise hunt together. Upon finding, harvesting and then landing such a great whale, no one can question nor doubt the purpose, pride and passion involved. In a modern society with all its distractions, issues and problems, the hunt brings into clear focus all that is culturally real, meaningful and true. While in Nunavut the days of hunting the (often massive) Bowhead by traditional means (qajaq) have long gone, there is no question it still requires an enormous amount of patience, skill, experience and knowledge. While many of the hunters in Nunavut utilize fabricated aluminum boats with powerful twin outboard motors, a chosen modern adaptation, the Inupiat people off the North slope of Alaska still remain true to tradition, using walrus-skin handmade boats called Umiaks.

The Bowhead has a nearly circumpolar distribution in the Northern hemisphere, being found mostly between 54 degrees and 85 degrees latitude. The present number of Bowheads being harvested in the Arctic regions (bowheads are not found in Antarctica) is considered to be sustainable. Recent studies and observations by those living in the Arctic all point towards a species growing in number. While specific numbers are hard to come by, it is known there are between 8,000 and 12,000 animals.

The Bowhead is one of the largest and heaviest whales in any ocean, occasionally growing to 30 metres in length and weighing in at an incredible 60 to 70 tonnes. Despite its size, the Bowhead’s presence is often heard first before it’s sighted. Having a unique double blowhole, the larger individuals exhale a V-shaped breath that can be heard (and sometimes seen) from several kilometres away.

To combat the extreme cold waters in which it calls home, the blubber layer possessed by Bowheads can reach over a foot thick, providing incredible insulation against water that rarely gets above zero. This thick layer of blubber also helps the whale to break through thinner areas of sea ice in order to breathe. Given thicker ice, these massive animals will also use seal breathing holes. The top of their heads, near the blowholes, are slightly conical in shape. Utilizing only a tiny fraction of its huge body to breathe, this enables the whale to take a breath.

Bowhead whales feed on crustacean zooplankton such as euphausiids and copepods, which they filter through 300 to 400 keratin plates or baleen. The animals sometimes swim great distances through clouds of plankton with their mouths open. They then close their massive mouths forcing the water out and the prey is caught. The tongue is used to lick the plankton off the baleen and the whale swallows its food.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 10 years old. Once pregnant, gestation is 12 months and one calf is born every three to four years. Newborns weigh around 2,000 to 3,000 kilograms and can be four metres long when they emerge from their mothers. For the first few months, newborns will stay close. Killer Whales (Orcas) have been known to go after these smaller whales but often that means getting past or distracting the protective mother.

Black in colour at birth, the young Bowhead develop white markings on the chin and tail fins as they mature. Along with photographing those tail flukes, this has become one of the most useful ways to identify individual whales — similar to facial features on a human being. During normal swimming, these chin markings are not easily seen, however, when the whales demonstrate what is called spy hopping, they can be clearly seen. The whales are thought to be “looking around” and can at times extend half their massive head out of the water.

Another behaviour worth noting is what’s called “breaching”. Many of the world’s large whales demonstrate these fascinating acrobatic leaps and at times almost their entire bodies emerge clear of the surface. It remains unclear why they do this. Some see it as purely celebratory; some regard it as another means by which the whale communicates with others. If this is the case, then breaching is used in conjunction with the enormous vocal range that the great whales possess. Given calm conditions, a breaching Bowhead can be heard several miles away. The sound resembling something close to a “boom,” is unlike anything else heard in Arctic waters.

Reported recently in the Baffin region of Nunavut, a large Bowhead whale was observed breaching consecutively over 50 times! One explanation provided by local Inuit hunters was that the whale “had problems going to the bathroom” — an interesting take on equally interesting behaviour. At the same time, it appeared there weren’t any other whales in the area. Was the whale attempting to communicate with other whales that might be close-by? Was it just having fun? Was it trying to cure an itch it just couldn’t scratch? Did it have difficulty digesting its food? We just don’t know.

Along with the Beluga and Narwhal, the Bowhead makes up the trio of true Arctic whales. Adapted to navigating life amidst Arctic ice, all three whales have no dorsal fin. In the case of the Narwhal, they have a dorsal ridge that does, on occasion, reach an approximate one-inch in height and several feet in length, extending along the whale’s spine. Beluga and Narwhal are relatively close in size (12 to 16 feet long) but the Bowhead truly dwarfs both.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting and intriguing fact about the Bowhead whale is that it is believed to be one of the oldest living animals to exist on this planet. With unique collaboration between the Inupiat Inuit whale hunters of Northern Alaska and biologists, it is now estimated that adult Bowheads can, and some likely do, live more than 200 years.

Within the past few years, a giant Bowhead whale was caught off the coast of Alaska. Embedded in the neck of the whale was a harpoon head. Biologists claim this important find helps prove the Bowhead is the oldest living mammal on earth.

The 13-centimetre arrow-shaped fragment dates back to around 1880, meaning the 50-ton whale had been around, living in the frigid cold Arctic waters, since Victorian times. Previously the oldest whales were believed to be southern hemisphere blue and fin whales, which can live up to 114 years. In the past 30 years however, six ancient harpoon heads have been reported found, embedded in the blubber of newly harvested Bowhead whales. The local Inupiat talk of hearing stories from their grandfathers, and in some cases great-grandfathers, about the type of harpoon heads that were used at a particular time. It’s hard to imagine the reaction and impression such a discovery would have on modern day hunters. As the whale was being cut up to distribute amongst fellow villagers, those participating and in attendance would be able to look back in time and ancient history.

The age of Bowhead whales can also be estimated by studying the changes in levels of aspartic acid, an amino acid found in the eye lens and teeth. Using Bowhead eyeballs (the size of a snooker ball) scientists say they can tell the whale’s age by the amount of acid, which increases in quantity in conjunction with the years.

It is both fascinating and amazing to think that such an ancient animal is swimming around in nearby Arctic waters. Each new tiny door of knowledge opened shows us inside an unseen and undiscovered great hall and we can appreciate just how much we still have to learn. What has that whale experienced in its lifetime? What knowledge lies deep beneath that thick shiny black exterior? Think about what the world was like over 200 years ago — certainly a very different place than it is today. So, somewhere, around the very early 1800s a whale was born — that same whale could very well be alive and well today.

For the past 18 years, David Reid has been involved in the Arctic expedition and travel business. He has led, organized or participated in more than 300 Arctic (and Antarctic) expeditions, trips and projects and travelled thousands of miles by dogsled, skis, snow – mobile, boat, kayak, ship and on foot.