Bowhead whale population re-surfaces in the Arctic

Scientists recently spotted several bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) near Svalbard where they have only been spotted a few times in the last several decades.

Bowhead whale in Greenland. The blow (or spout) of a bowhead can reach 7m in height.

Two weeks of searching on a recent research mission to the arctic waters between Greenland and the Svalbard Archipelago ( Norway) was rewarded with 8 whale sightings, several of which involved multiple whales (3, 3 and 7 plus whales spotted together). The sightings give a glimmer of hope for the recovery of the “Spitsbergen stock” of bowheads, a population that is Critically Endangered.

Bowhead whales were dramatically over-hunted during the earliest commercial whaling in the Arctic in the 1600s. By the late 19 th century, European whalers had brought the Spitsbergen stock to the verge of extinction, but it seems that a few of these long-living whales survived.

The programme to study bowhead whales is a joint venture between researchers from the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, the Institute for Marine Research in Bergen and the Norwegian Polar Insitute in Tromsø. It is led by Dr. Øystein Wiig of the Natural History Museum and includes SSC Specialist Group chair Dr. Kit Kovacs. The Spitsbergen population is virtually unstudied because sightings have been so rare, and guesses at the population size range from a few individuals to 100. Most reports suggest 10s of animals, but the reality is that scientists do not know how many there are in this stock. The collaborating team of researchers is hopeful that the success of this pilot project will provide an incentive to support a more intensive census.

Bowhead whales might live to be 200+ years old and are named after their enormous bow-shaped mouths which hold the longest baleen of any whale, sometimes measuring over three meters in length. Baleen is a series of comb-like plates that hang from the upper jaw of all of the “baleen whales’” mouths to sieve plankton and small fish from sea water. These whales live in northern hemisphere waters near the edge of the Arctic ice shelf.

The worldwide moratorium on whaling came into effect in 1986, though bowhead whales have been protected since before then and are still harvested in significant numbers under the guidance of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) by native people particularly in Alaska. They were protected by IWC in the mid 1960s and listed as Endangered in the early 1970s.

For more information please contact:

Dr. Kit Kovacs, IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group Chair

SSC Cetacean Specialist Group

Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo

Institute for Marine Research in Bergen

Norwegian Polar Insitute in Tromsø


Work area: 
Marine species
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