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Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Bowhead whale

Bowhead wha­le near Ver­le­gen­hu­ken, 2009.

Beschrei­bung: The Bowhead wha­le, some­ti­mes also cal­led Green­land wha­le, is a lar­ge, dark ani­mal up to 20 met­res long and 100 tons in weight. The migh­ty mouth alo­ne can occu­py a good third of the body length. The baleen pla­tes that hang down from the upper jaw, can be three or even four met­res long, the lon­gest of any wha­le spe­ci­es on Earth. Bowhead wha­les are slow swim­mers, with a strong, V-shaped blow. The most important dia­gno­stic fea­ture is the absence of a dor­sal fin.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­on: The Bowhead wha­le is a high-arc­tic wha­le spe­ci­es that tends to stay near drift ice. Both his­to­ri­cal obser­va­tions and some scar­ce modern data seem to indi­ca­te that the Bowhead wha­le spends the win­ter far north, bet­ween 78 and 80°N, but the sum­mer fur­ther south (70-73°N).

They have been extre­me­ly abun­dant well into the 17th cen­tu­ry, but have been dri­ven clo­se to extinc­tion by wha­lers during sub­se­quent deca­des. In recent years, sin­gle Bowhead wha­les have been seen again in Sval­bard waters. During the sum­mer of 2006, one ani­mal was even seen near Lon­gye­ar­by­en – the first sight­ing of this spe­ci­es on the west coast of Spits­ber­gen for a very long time and thus quite a sen­sa­ti­on! In 2007, five Bowhead wha­les were seen south of Kvi­tøya, and indi­vi­du­al ani­mals were also obser­ved more recent­ly, most­ly on the north coast.

Nevert­hel­ess, the Bowhead wha­le must unfort­u­na­te­ly be con­side­red prac­ti­cal­ly extinct in the area, and nobo­dy is able to say if the popu­la­ti­on will ever reco­ver. The­re are still a few hundred ani­mals in the Rus­si­an and north Ame­ri­can Arc­tic. Recent data sug­gest a slight reco­very of the West Green­land popu­la­ti­on.

Bio­lo­gy: Litt­le is known about this extre­me­ly rare spe­ci­es. Like other baleen wha­les, Bowhead wha­les swim slow­ly through sur­face waters of the oce­ans, fil­te­ring immense volu­mes of sea­wa­ter for plank­ton. A cow may give birth to a 3.5 met­re long calf every second year.

Mis­cel­la­neous: The fine oil that was boi­led out of the blub­ber (=fat) lay­er was a pre­cious pro­duct, as was the baleen. This made the Bowhead wha­le the pre­fer­red tar­get spe­ci­es of a very inten­se, inter­na­tio­nal wha­ling peri­od in the north Atlan­tic during the 17th and 18th cen­tu­ries. In Spits­ber­gen, the spe­ci­es was pro­tec­ted in 1911, but inter­na­tio­nal­ly, this hap­pen­ed as late as 1939 – far too late, obvious­ly.

Today, it is hard to ima­gi­ne the abun­dance of wha­les that must have crow­ded the fjords of Spits­ber­gen in the past. Old chro­nic­les and logs can give only a slight idea.



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last modification: 2014-10-27 · copyright: Rolf Stange