Bowhead whales! For me this was one of the greatest whale encounters ever. Being solely an Arctic species and in some places very difficult to observe, due to the fact they are still being hunted, I could only ever dream about seeing a Bowhead whale in the wild. In the waters around Franz Josef Land they are not hunted and are more easily approached. To see up to 10 animals feed a few hundred metres from the ship, and that during several encounters on 3 consecutive expeditions, truly was a whale dream come true for me!
And they are such amazing creatures!!! One of just three year-round native Arctic whale species, Bowhead whales are famous for their massive bow-shaped heads, designed perfectly for getting through thick sea ice to breathe. Bowheads are able to use their large reinforced skulls and powerful bodies to break through ice 20 cm thick. Inuit hunters in Alaska have reported whales surfacing through 60 cm of ice.
Records suggest that they may live up to 200 years!! Like the other ice whales (narwhal and beluga), bowheads have no dorsal fin, enabling them to move easily under the sea ice. They have a very thick layer of blubber (up to 40-50 cm), which serves primarily as an energy store in the icy waters.
Hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for whale oil and baleen, bowhead whales are today still recovering slowly from the brink of extinction. Inuit in Canada, Greenland and Alaska are still allowed a limited subsistence hunt for bowhead whales however.
Modern threats include sea ice retreat and changes to food web dynamics due to rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Bowheads are also affected by increased development such as oil and gas exploration, commercial shipping, and fishing.
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