Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale: Rick LeDuc

Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus ) are one of the few cetaceans that permanently reside in polar waters, seasonally moving with the advance and retreat of the ice edge. Once 19th century whalers discovered their haunts, they were heavily exploited. Their high yield of blubber and extremely long (up to 14 ft) baleen plates, combined with their slow swimming speeds and tendency to float when killed (like their right whale cousins), made them a prime target for whalers. Whale oil was used widely for a variety of industrial and household applications, and the strong yet flexible baleen was used for things such as buggy whips and corset stays. There is some evidence that these whales live to be well over 100 years old. Currently protected from commercial exploitation, there is still an aboriginal subsistence harvest, particularly along the north slope of Alaska. The North Pacific contains two populations of bowhead whales, one in the Okhotsk Sea in Russia, and another in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The latter population has seen considerable recovery since the end of whaling, but the smaller Okhotsk Sea population, more heavily exploited in the past, is still at dangerously low numbers. Genetic research has determined that these two North Pacific populations are distinct, indicating that movement of individuals between them is rare if it occurs at all (LeDuc et al. 1998). This finding underlies the need for conserving and managing the Okhotsk Sea population separately.

Selected Publications

Bowhead Whale: Rick LeDuc

LeDuc, R. G., Rosenberg, A., Dizon, A. E., Burdin, A. M., Blokhin, S. A. and Brownell, R. L., Jr. 1998. Preliminary genetic analyses (mtDNA and microsatellites) of two populations of bowhead whales. Paper SC/50/AS11, presented to the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, 1998 (unpublished).

Last modified: 12/24/2014