Some Whales That Dodged Harpoons in the Days of Herman Melville Are Still Alive and Well Today

by Owen James Burke

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It may be unlikely, but it’s quite possible that some of these mammoths crossed beneath the feet of American novelist Herman Melville while he was aboard a whaling ship in the 1840s, unwittingly researching his forthcoming tome.

Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are baleen whales that can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh just as much in tons. Their heads, over a third the size of its body, are built to smash through ice–up to a foot-and-a-half thick–on their way to the surface.

They’re also the longest-living mammals on earth (the oldest ever to be aged was 211), and a few who are still alive today were plying the Pacific around the same time Herman Melville was stumbling around the deck of a Yankee whaling ship and penning his classic tale of the elusive white whale.

Slow swimmers and easy targets, like the right whale with which they were confused in the early days, the bowhead was highly sought by whalers. They’d had been hunted down to the mere hundreds by the time a moratorium was placed on whaling in 1966, but today, they are proliferating to the point that some Arctic natives are being permitted to resume hunting them (for subsistence).

But the remarkable 200+ year lifespan of the bowhead whale was only discovered in 2012 when scientist Craig George, who’s been conducting population studies since the 1970s, reported finding an old stone harpoon point in one specimen which let on that they lived much, much longer than previously thought.

This may be old news for some (depending on your definition of the word ‘old’), but as another fall whaling season comes to a close for Alaskan inuits, whose history with the magnificent beasts runs as deep as any, it’s as poignant as ever. If only we could speak whale.

So if you find yourself on a whale watch in the Arctic, puzzled by the reservations of some individuals and not others, consider that perhaps they’ve seen the likes of you before, and maybe even the harpoon of mad old Ahab himself.

Read more about the bowhead at Alaska Dispatch News.


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