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Arctic Whales

Humpback Whales

Although they live in sea water, whales are mammals, they mate in the water, give birth in the water and suckle their young underwater. Whales breathe air through nostrils or blowholes on the top of their head, enabling them to stay submerged. Baleen whales have two blowholes close together, the toothed whales have only one blowhole. Their thick layer of blubber means they can spend time in the Arctic, although only 3 species are there all year round, and the fact that they need to breathe air means that they need to be cautious around sea ice.

The Baleen Whale that lives in the Arctic is the Bowhead, or Greenland Right Whale, it can grow to 66ft or 20metres and because it is so chunky in build, it is second only in weight to the Blue Whale. Recent research, with Alaskan Inuit sharing data with whale biologists has revealed that the Bowhead is probably the longest lived mammal in the world. The discovery of ivory whale harpoons in whales killed in indigenous harvest revealed that some individuals can live to be 150-200 years old. Relating these finds to a discovery about the structure of the whale’s eyes have meant that it is now possible to determine the age of other whales killed without ancient hunting tools in them. Another female of the age of 90 was reported to still be reproductive. In May 2007 a whale caught off the Alaskan coast was discovered to have the head of an explosive harpoon beneath the blubber in its neck. The harpoon from New Bedford was dated as being made around 1890, indicating that the whale was probably between 115 and 130 years old and had been more fortunate in the earlier hunt.

Beluga Whale
The two toothed whales that call the Arctic home are the Narwhal and the Beluga or White Whale. Like all toothed whales they use echolocation and have the ‘melon’ on top of their heads to focus the sound. The Narwhal has the unusual adaptation of the males developing a single spiral tooth or tusk that grows out of the front of its top jaw and can grow to one metre long. Rarely a male will have a second tooth too. It appears to be a secondary sexual characteristic and is designed to make the male look sexy to the females.

Narwhals overwinter in deep offshore waters and have been recorded diving to 1,500m or 4,500 ft to feed. In summer they move to shallower ice free waters where the females give birth to their single grey coloured calf. At this time of the year you can sometimes see huge gatherings of Narwhals. I sttod on a cliff at 3 am in Greenland and for over an hour watched pod after pod of narwhals swim past.

The adults Belugas are dramatically white and in the summer they swim into shallow waters to slough their dead skin by rubbing themselves on the sandy river bottoms. Belugas are also called sea canaries because of their loud underwater calls, as they have no vocal chords, these calls are produced in their blowholes.

Both Narwhals and Belugas are predated on by Polar Bears and orcas also known as Killer Whales

Summer migrants to Arctic waters

Humpback Whales Feeding
During the summer months the fertile arctic waters attract whales from much further south. The Grey Whales migrate up the west coast of North America from their overwintering grounds in Baja Mexico, where they give birth to their calves. They spend the summer feeding along the north coast of Chukotka and I was amazed, one evening, standing on the deck of a ship to see countless grey whale blows illuminated by the low sun, they were everywhere and followed each other immediately, there must have been well over 100 whales within my view. Humpback whales also move into northern waters in the summer to feed but are not seen as frequently in the waters of the far north, the humpback was hunted to the brink of extinction but has made a good recovery since hunting ceased. Killer Whales move north and feed on other marine mammals during the summer months. The Inuit say that you know when there are Orca around because the Narwhals move into shallow inshore waters where they feel safer.


At the height of the whaling industry, the Bowhead was sought after by the whalers, being closely related to the Right Whale it was slow swimming and its body floated when dead. Commercial whaling started in the 16th Century, in 1611 the first whaling expedition went to Spitsbergen and by the 1650’s the population there was practically wiped out and the whalers moved to East Greenland, thence to the Davis Strait and and by the start of the 19th century to Baffin Bay. Commercial whaling in the North Pacific started in the 1840s and in 20 years they had killed 60 per cent of the population. Now only the Alaskan Natives take a few whales each year and the population is recovering, it is now believed to stand at 10,500 animals.

All 3 arctic species are the subject of some indigenous whaling, The bowhead has a tight quota system and is only hunted fro Alaskan Villages, the Narwhal is hunted using traditional methods, a kayak and a hand thrown harpoon in the north west of Greenland but further south they use motor boats. Belugas are also hunted from baots, primarily for their skin or Muktuk, an Inuit delicacy. Grey whales are hunted from open boats along the Chukotka coast


Bowhead whales may be the world’s oldest mammals

Text © B & C Alexander

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