Bring out the bowheads
Researchers aboard Oceanwide Expeditions vessel m/v Plancius spotted between 104—114 bowhead whales during a June 1st cruise along the east Greenland pack ice. Hailing from Wageningen Marine Research and staffed as Oceanwide expedition guides, the scientists spotted the whales over the course of seven hours while on a voyage organized by Oceanwide, Inezia Tours, and Natuurpunt, Belgium’s largest conservation entity. This number exceeds all previous bowhead whale counts, potentially a good sign given the rarity of the whale as well as its classification as critically endangered by the IUCN.
On the rise but still nearly extinct
Though the Arctic-adapted bowhead is the only whale that can be seen year-round in the severe far north conditions, they are not so well adapted to mass hunting. The great whale hunts starting in the 16th century nearly wiped out their sub-population in the Greenland Sea, close to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, and in fact there are thought to be only a few hundred bowheads left in that area. Even so, bowhead whale counts have increased since 2015, a rise that has been a long time coming and still demands considerable research to explain.
The findings of previous bowhead counts
A 2015 expedition that yielded a count of 90 bowhead whales in the same area demonstrated to researchers the scientific value of studying the little-known bowhead populations in the Greenland Sea. Combining their current-day research with 16th century hunting records, scientists learned that bowhead whales congregate along the pack ice in May and June, after which adult males and females without calves migrate southwest while all others proceed into the pack ice north of Spitsbergen. And more recently, acoustic data has revealed that bowheads move farther north into the pack ice during the winter.
The future of bowhead whale research
Due to the centuries-long exploitation of bowheads, their Arctic numbers have yet to replenish – if they ever will entirely. Added to this, climate change is not doing them any favors. The increase of the Spitsbergen subpopulation is larger than scientists formerly assumed, but significant investigation is still needed to verify what exactly this increase means. There is every possibility that these treasured whales, so central a member of polar marine life and a favorite of Arctic cruises, may still teeter on the knife’s edge of extinction. For the full story, visit the Wageningen University website.