A day in the life: Plancius surrounded by Bowhead Whales
June 7 off the east Greenland coast, the Greenland expedition passengers onboard Plancius were enjoying a spectacular day cruising along the pack ice. Polar bear, ivory gull, hooded seal, harp seal and many other pack ice wildlife were observed and the scenery and atmosphere in the pack ice was, as always, simply breathtaking.
Mid afternoon a bowhead whale was observed along the ice edge, a species we had barely dreamed of seeing on this Arctic expedition voyage. Sadly, it was rather elusive and despite spending nearly an hour in the vicinity, we could not relocate this Arctic behemoth so the best most people saw was a black back and a big blow; the majority did not see the whale at all.
A couple hours later, in rather heavy fog, a second bowhead surfaced just meters away from the vessel giving a lucky few an unbelievably good view. However this whale also proved elusive and the vast majority on board were not able to see it. Nonetheless, two bowhead sightings in the same day was an incredible feat for this part of the arctic!
Could these all be bowhead whales?
We enjoyed dinner on deck and then resumed our cruise along the pack ice. Nothing could have prepared us for the events about to unfold. A distant blow was observed in more open water and determined to be yet another bowhead. Shouts rang out as whale spouts were seen in several areas – could these all be bowheads? Yes! Selecting one animal we made a closer approach and everyone on board was afforded unforgettable views of this unique and almost mythical arctic animal.
This was just the beginning; it soon became clear that we had stumbled onto something very special as blows, backs and tails flukes were scattered all over the horizon. Over the next several hours we were surrounded by bowheads, most quite far, but some very close. With so many animals around it was difficult to get a feel for how many in total we had seen, but 30-40 animals were in views at some time. The general feeling was that we saw between 80 and 100 animals, although it could well have been even higher!
To put this number in perspective, the East Greenland/Barents Sea stock is considered so rare that no population estimate is possible, although it is widely thought that there are less than 100 (possible much less). The largest report in modern times from east Greenland is of 17 animals. One other possibility is that these are animals that have moved across from the much large Baffin/West Greenland population. In any case this was a remarkable find, one that is already being hailed by cetacean biologists as the “sight of the century”. This was an experience those onboard will never forget and we can only hope that the much persecuted bowhead whale is now on its way to a recovery in the Arctic and encounters like this will be possible in the future.