Bowhead whale found with a century-old lance in its blubber

June 15, 2011 • 7:32 am

It’s hard to age whales, and it’s usually done by looking at the proportion of right-handed amino acids in the eye-lens proteins, a proportion that increases with age.  A more direct estimate, showing the extreme longevity of these leviathans, was just obtained from dissection of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) killed by Inuits off the coast of Alaska.  According to MSNBC, an explosive (but perhaps unexploded) lance tip was found embedded in the whale’s blubber, a tip estimated at more than 100 years old.  The whale, then, was estimated to be between 115 and 130 years old.  Ironically, it was killed by a more modern version of the explosive lance.  (In 1881, Billy the Kid escaped from jail in New Mexico and President Garfield was inaugurated.)

Bowheads have been estimated to live up to 200 years, but this is the most direct evidence to date.

(Caption from MSNBC): This bomb lance fragment, patented in 1879, was removed from the neck of a bowhead whale captured at Barrow, Alaska, in May 2007. The shiny scars are the result of a chain saw cut.

A bowhead.  Do we really need to keep killing them?

h/t: Matthew Cobb

36 thoughts on “Bowhead whale found with a century-old lance in its blubber

  1. I hate that we give the Inuit some sort of free pass for whaling, and that they are apparently doing it with some sort of exploding harpoon. That’s hardly part of your original culture isn’t it? Native peoples should follow the same ecological rules as the rest of us.

    1. The hunt is what is traditional, not the weapons technology. And what White person ever had to give up modern weapons technology to go hunting?

        1. The inuits of all people have it as one of their main food sources, which they need, don’t they? :/ Not like japan or wherever where it’s completely unnecessary. The innuit have quite a healthy diet and low cholesterol, unless they start eating western processed food.

          1. Harpooning a whale and cutting off the flesh is a process. All food is processed food. That’s just one of those moronic foodie buzzwords that doesn’t mean anything at all.

            1. The commonly understood meaning of processed food is that of an industrially processed food product, generally intended for mass distribution. Unless one deliberately chooses to ignore common interpretation processed is not a moronic buzz word at all. Just wondering who has the bee in his/her bonnet?

            2. Indeed, that gets my goat, as well when people (even scientists!) discuss “chemicals” in food and water.

              Reminds of the problem with science theory vs colloquial theory, if we should keep “spiritual” or rename it as in the nearby post, et cetera. Just because it is a common mistake, doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to the conflation/confusion.

              Whoever came up with it was indeed creating a moronic foodie buzzword, whether it caught on or not.

      1. “And what White person ever had to give up modern weapons technology to go hunting?”

        All of them, except for Japan, Iceland, and Norway. Unless I’m missing anywhere else where whales are still hunted by non-natives?

        1. According to the International Whaling Commission website, the three countries you mentioned are its only members that still practice non-subsistence whaling (I don’t think “non-native” is the best word to describe the majority populations of Japan or Iceland). Norway and Iceland hunt 500-600 whales for commercial purposes, while Japan kills ~1,000 under a scientific permit (sushi research, perhaps?). The “aboriginal subsistence” kind of hunting is practiced in the USA, Russia, Greenland and St. Vincent and Grenadines, totaling 300-400 catches per year, much less than in the other two categories.

          However, whaling may still be practiced by some non-IWC countries (for example, Indonesia), as well as by criminals in countries where it is prohibited (e.g., South Korea).

  2. The Inuit argue that whaling is part of their heritage and culture. Much the way South Carolina argues the confederate flag, and religions reserve the right to keep their children bigoted and ignorant. None of these things are good for us as a country, or as a planet.

  3. From a big picture perspective, a resounding no to killing whales under any pretext especially “scientific research”.
    It is possible to argue that “traditional” methods employed by the Inuit may be compatible with their cultural heritage but then it was compatible with a western heritage to burn witches & employ children in coal mines but we have progressed in some aspects & left such outdated ideas behind – so should the Inuit.
    And BTW, off topic here but having recently watched some of the BBC series on Mountain Gorillas, can anybody explain from an evolutionary perspective why these peaceful, largely herbivorous creatures have such massive incisors? They seem to be over endowed unless it is simply the size of the animal & their teeth are in proportion.

    1. Gorillas have fairly powerful jaws in order to bite through tough vegetation (that big ridge on the back of the skull is for jaw muscle attachment). I’d assume that they’d have large incisors for the same function.

  4. Something like this is way more worthy of running on CNN Breaking News than who won some damn tennis match or basketball game.

    -some time in the future-

    All ‘quality’ land and potable water will have been more or less ‘sequestered’ by the aristocracy, all others -water tables, rivers, estuaries and their immediate seas and oceans will have been polluted, dammed, overrun, developed and exhausted or otherwise corrupted to the ecosystem and human needs; the production of clean water by artificial means will have failed like everything else because of energy requirements.

    1. Alex Prud’homme was on Jon Stewart this week plugging his book, “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century” Worth catching the interview, or reading the book.

  6. Not that I necessarily think this is the case, but is it possible that a 100-year old harpoon could have been used, say, only 50 years ago, so is not necessarily a sign (in itself) of the longevity of this particular whale?

    1. Conceivable would be a better word. I thought I read somewhere that an even older harpoon point (not made of metal, though I don’t recall if it was bone, stone, or something else) was found in a bowhead.

      It’s also true that the eye dating method that Jerry referred to points to ages of over 200 years.

  7. Tradition is always a lousy justification for anything.

    What saddens me is that a human animal’s cultural heritage is more valuable than the life of an animal. How superior is that? An animal has to die so humans can feel their primitive roots? Bleh. 🙁

    Then again, at least they don’t make slaves of billions of livestock animals that are slaughtered each year. Maybe some change and advancement there would not go astray either.

    1. I can see some value in trying to preserve unique traditions, but there’s absolutely no reason why they have to hunt animals as heavily endangered as bowhead whales. Likewise, if they’re using explosive harpoons it’s hardly preserving their tradition.

  8. All humans can trace back to ancestors with various barbaric “traditions”, up to and including human sacrifice. The fact that some peoples can trace back some traditions to more recent ancestors than the rest of us does not give them a “special pass” for those traditions. Perhaps, in some limited way, it does give them a “special pass”, because destroying a people’s culture arguably does psychological harm to those people. But when making the case for preserving such traditions, it only seems fair that they should limit themselves to the limited tools and technologies of those traditions.

    If they can embrace modern “exploding harpoons” and motorboats, then they can embrace the modern world and modern economy in general, in which case they do *not* need to hunt the whales for subsistence, so long as government policies do not bar them access to modern jobs and business opportunities.

  9. Something like this was also related in Philip Hoare’s excellent book about whales, Leviathan, or The Whale ( I recently read it. It’s a strange (in a good sense) mix of personal stories, Moby Dick/Melville, and natural history. And beautifully written.

  10. What the heck else is there to do in Inuit territory besides “traditional” activities? No employment, awful climate, enduring cold darkness alternating with unending maddening light, pretty much in the “middle of nowhere” — I suppose one could go on welfare and drink!
    I find it hard to begrudge traditional societies when the sins of our own are so very blatantly worse!

  11. Polite correction: “Inuit” is already plural. Singular is “Inuk”.

    Anyway, as much as I do find hunting whales somewhat distasteful, I do wonder if I am being hypocritical – where does one one draw the line? I guess this is what leads to out-and-out vegetarianism.

    I might add also that hunting whales is not *just* a food thing amongst the Inuit. It is, for lack of a better word, a religious thing. For better or worse, that makes it hard to stop, especially as they have been subject (like many native groups) to years of cultural imperialism and such.

    1. Bowhead whales are one of the most endangered mammals on the planet. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are not. If you regularly eat seafood from overfished stocks, then yes, you might be hypocritical, but if your main sources of protein come from common animals you aren’t.

  12. All Inuit might be eskimos but not all eskimos are Inuit. They are just one of several groups of people that live in the polar areas.

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