A group of bowhead whales feeds off the northern coast of Alaska in fall 2020. (Courtesy Photo / Amy Willoughby)

A group of bowhead whales feeds off the northern coast of Alaska in fall 2020. (Courtesy Photo / Amy Willoughby)

Alaska Science Forum: Bowhead whales are a rare wildlife rebound story

They’re the size of a bus and can live for 200 years.

  • By Ned Rozell
  • Friday, January 29, 2021 11:17am
  • News

By Ned Rozell

Bowhead whales are true northern creatures, swimming only in cold oceans off Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Russia. These bus-size whales have the largest mouths in the animal kingdom, can live for 200 years and can go without eating for more than a year due to their remarkable fat reserves.

Bowheads are also a rare wildlife rebound story, with the population north and west of Alaska now numbering more than 16,000. That’s up from the 1,000 or so animals Yankee whalers left behind in bloody waters at the turn of the last century.

Another part of the story is that bowhead whales also live in one of the fastest-changing regions on the planet. Biologists wonder about the future for the whales and the people who hunt them.

Craig George, a retired biologist with the North Slope Borough who lives in Utqiaġvik, has since the early 1980s studied the animal he describes as “an enormous, swimming head.”

[Alaska Science Forum: Bowhead whales may be the world’s oldest mammals]

From a perch made of sea ice, each spring George has counted bowheads rising for air between floes. As recently as a few days ago, he has listened to their unearthly calls beneath the ice using hydrophones lowered into the water.

As the past four decades have progressed, George has counted many more bowhead whales. At the same time, he and others living on Alaska’s northern coast have seen open water lapping at their shores in December — ice that forms on the ocean has appeared much later in the polar winter than just a decade ago.

Open ocean off Utqiaġvik in fall and early winter has resulted in what George has called a “climate changed,” with fall air temperatures more consistent with a town in Norway than the top of Alaska.

Through all that change, the whale with the reinforced hull of a head (used for breaking through ice) has thrived, in large part because people have left them alone, in a relatively untouched ocean.

“The assumption was that sea ice retreat would not be good for these animals, but they seem to be doing well — to date,” George said.

Bowhead whales have been food for many years to Native people of the northern coasts, including hunting crews from 11 villages in Alaska. Team members pursue whales from open boats, a risky endeavor that, when successful, provides food for much of the village.

Those Native hunters at Utqiaġvik had a hard time finding bowhead whales in fall 2019. Scientists looking for them during an airplane survey flown each year since 1979 did not see many bowheads, either.

“It was ecologically perplexing to us, and a real concern to whalers,” said Megan Ferguson, a biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We didn’t know if 2019 was the new normal, or a one-off.”

Ferguson, who lives in Seattle, also flew north for an autumn 2020 survey. Bowheads were everywhere her team looked, starting right after the survey plane lifted off from Utqiaġvik.

“We had sightings one right after the other,” she said.

The many bowheads Ferguson and her team spotted in 2020 meant that the long-lived whales were somewhere else in 2019, a year with record-breaking warm northern-ocean temperatures.

What was the difference between the years? Scientists noticed an abundance of whale food right off Utqiaġvik in 2020: shrimp-like, inch-long krill twitching by the thousands, as well as fatty copepods, which George calls “butterballs.”

What will 2021 bring for this iconic northern creature?

“It has been a good time to be a bowhead whale,” Ferguson said. “But things are changing, and it’s hard to predict what we’ll get in the future. Will whales consistently be available to the whalers in the years ahead?”

George, who has seen America’s northernmost town get warmer than he ever thought possible, said that bowheads have been having a good number of calves recently, usually an indicator that a species is doing well.

But he also said hunters and North Slope Borough wildlife veterinarian Raphaela Stimmelmayr noticed kidney-worm infections in bowheads, possibly spread to them from other types of whales venturing northward. And killer whales, one of the few natural predators of bowheads, have been documented in Arctic waters as sea ice shrinks toward the pole.

Even with all the uncertainty, “I would definitely say (bowheads are) a success story,” Ferguson said. George agrees that recovery of Alaska bowheads is one of America’s great conservation stories.

Ferguson and George pointed out that the recovery of this ocean giant was due to several factors. One was the end of commercial American whaling by men on wooden ships from New England. Another is the existence of pristine bowhead habitat far from the interests of people. A third is the actions of Native people who hunt the whales as part of their cultural identity.

“There’s few groups that fight as hard for conservation of this animal,” George said of organizations like the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the local government of Utqiaġvik, which helped fund the fall 2020 aerial survey of the whales.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Bowhead whales swim off the coast of northern Alaska in fall 2020. The population of the whales north and west of Alaska now numbers more than 16,000. (Courtesy Photo / Amy Willoughby)

Bowhead whales swim off the coast of northern Alaska in fall 2020. The population of the whales north and west of Alaska now numbers more than 16,000. (Courtesy Photo / Amy Willoughby)

This range map shows where bowhead whales live around Alaska. (Courtesy Image / Alaska Department of Fish and Game Marine Mammals Program)

This range map shows where bowhead whales live around Alaska. (Courtesy Image / Alaska Department of Fish and Game Marine Mammals Program)

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of June 26

Here’s what to expect this week.

Drag queen Gigi Monroe reads a book about a wig during Drag Storytime at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
One for the books: Drag Storytime returns

Balloons, books, bustin’ moves.

FILE - Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. Sweeney's campaign manager said, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, that the campaign did not plan to sue over a finding released by Alaska elections officials stating that she cannot advance to the special election for U.S. House following the withdrawal of another candidate. (AP Photo / Mark Thiessen, File)
Alaska Supreme Court ruling keeps Sweeney off House ballot

In a brief written order, the high court said it affirmed the decision of a Superior Court judge.

President Joe Biden signs into law S. 2938, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gun safety bill, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 25, 2022. First lady Jill Biden looks on at right. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President signs landmark gun measure, says ‘lives will be saved’

The House gave final approval Friday, following Senate passage Thursday.

Three people were arrested over several days in a series of events stemming from a June 16 shoplifting incident, with a significant amount of methamphetamine seized. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Shoplifting investigation leads to arrests on drug charges

Significant amounts of drugs and loose cash, as well as stolen goods, were found.

Ben Gaglioti, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stands next to a mountain hemlock tree damaged in winter on the outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Photos / Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Bonsai trees tell of winters long past

By Ned Rozell A GREEN PLATEAU NORTH OF LITUYA BAY — “These… Continue reading

This photo shows a return envelope from the recent special primary election for Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. On Friday, a judge sided with the state elections office on a decision to omit fifth-place finisher Tara Sweeney from ballots in the special general election. Al Gross, who finished third in the special primary, dropped out of the race, creating confusing circumstances ahead of Alaska's first ranked choice vote. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Judge rules Sweeney wont advance to special election

Decision has Sweeney off the ballot for special election.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, June 25, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of June 19

Here’s what to expect this week.

Most Read