Bowhead whales are enormous whales that can grow up to 65 ft. and weigh up to 220,000 lb. They have stocky, blubber-insulated bodies and thick triangular-shaped heads. These whales can live for up to 200 years old.
Some white markings can be seen on their belly and a whitish band on their tail. Bowheads are blue-black in color with a large spot on their lower jaw.
Their big heads compose one-third of their overall length, and just like most whales, they do not also have dorsal fins; this allows them to navigate underneath the Arctic ice. They also have two blowholes, which produces a distinctive V-shaped spray.
Bowhead Whales: Hunted to Near Extinction
But these cold-loving ocean giant creatures were commercially hunted for their oil, meat, and baleen, which drove them nearly to extinction before they became protected from commercial whaling in 1946. But until now, oil and gas exploration and development still pose significant threats to bowhead whales, including industrial pollution, collisions with ships, and global warming.
Long ago, there were about 50,000 whales, but their population has slowly dwindled with four or five of the remaining populations have fewer than 400 whales each. Currently, their estimated population is about 10,000 and rising.
A type of bowhead whale, the Spitsbergen's had also been hunted almost to extinction until the 1990s and was rarely seen after. But recently, the whales' songs were detected in the waters east of Greenland, according to the journal Nature. However, scientists knew little about the habits of these endangered animals.
Kit Kovacs at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø together with her team have sought hard to gather data about these rare whales which belong to the family of Spitsbergen bowheads (Balaena mysticetus), named for an island in the Arctic Circle
They rode a helicopter dispatched from an icebreaker and shot transmitter tags into the blubber of 13 Spitsbergen's bowheads.
The Spitsbergen's Bowheads Journey
Their research showed that the animals' paths are different from other bowheads' habits. The Spitsbergen's bowheads travel south during the summer and then to the north during winter. According to research published in The Royal Society, it is a pattern opposite in terms of directionality compared to other Arctic bowhead whale populations.
This results for the whale to be submerged in deep, cold seas almost completely covered in ice for the most part of their journey, which often spans for more than 100 kilometers from vast stretches of open water. They rely on a few cracks in the ice to breathe.
But the extreme association of this whale population with cold, ice-filled waters is a concern given the ongoing global warming and climate change that causes the rapid sea ice habitat loss.
The researchers suggest the whale hunting industry has caused the Spitsbergen's bowhead whales to frequent balmier winter seas. The ice sheets have become these hardy whales' fortress and protection from any possible threat, especially from whalers.
Now their population is gradually increasing and filling the deep cold ocean with their songs.