Bowhead Subsistence Whaling in Alaska

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A Community Perspective

This post was written by the community observer currently aboard the Sikuliaq. Community observers log wildlife sightings and spend much of their time observing from the bridge. They act as liaisons between researchers and the Alaskan communities nearby. 


The Bowhead whale has been sought after for many years.  After death, the Bowhead floats on the surface of the water. This made the whale an easy target for commercial harvesting and led to depleted populations throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Efforts to conserve the Bowhead began in 1931. Now the Bowhead population is upwards of 16,000 strong.

The Bowhead is the only baleen whale to spend its entire life in the Arctic. Bowheads are also known for their incredible lifespan. In 2007, a Bowhead caught off the coast of Alaska was found to have an explosive harpoon device made in New Bedford, MA in the late 1800s in its blubber. This means that the whale was over 200 years of age at an estimated 211 years old. Scientists think their long lifespan may be due to metabolic features from living in a cold environment. The adult Bowhead can reach up to 18 meters in length and can tip the scales weighing up to 100 tons!

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The Bowhead Whale is also known as the Greenland Right Whale, Arctic Whale, Arctic Right Whale, or Great Polar Whale. It is the state marine mammal of Alaska.      Source: Discovering Whales
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Upper left: Gray whale, Center left: bowhead whale, Upper right: humpback whale,      Bottom: blue whale. Source: State Symbols USA

Alaska has 11 communities that hunt whales for subsistence. Each year a quota is designated for each community. Once the quota is met, the whaling ceases for that season. Once caught, the whale is shared amongst the whaling crews and then dispersed through the community. Whaling occurs during both the Spring and Fall and is often celebrated throughout the community once the seasonal hunts are complete.

During this cruise we have been privy to several Bowhead whale sightings. Of significance is the prevalence of Bowhead whales offshore of Utqiagvik (previously known as Barrow, and translates to “the place to hunt the snowy owl”). We also have one reported sighting of a grey whale and several sightings of walrus, the majority of which we have seen along the Hannah Shoal line. In total, we’ve documented at least 14 sightings of bowhead whales and 11 sightings of walruses.  

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A sighting of walruses in September 2016

It is interesting to note that this year it has been reported that the walruses have already begun to haul out offshore of Northwest Alaska. They have been spotted offshore a few miles from the coastal village of Point Lay. The US Fish and Wildlife service has recorded this year as the earliest haul out on record. Walruses “haul out” or come ashore annually about two weeks from when the sea ice retreats. This year the sea ice has retreated earlier than last year, when haul out was observed near Point Lay in early October. 

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Arctic sea ice extent from July, 2017. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)

Walrus are known for their size and tusks. Males tend to have longer and heavier tusks whereas females have significantly smaller and shorter tusks. It’s neat to note that aside from congregating on land and breeding, one will typically not see a male and female walrus swimming together; in other words, there are no intermingling of the sexes. Walrus can weigh up to 1900 kgs and reach up to 3.6 meters in length. Walrus live upwards of 30 to 40 years. It is estimated that the population of walruses is around 220,000 and most are found in the extreme Pacific region right where we have been cruising! 

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