Originally reported by KTUU, Alaska.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s subsistence hunts of Arctic bowhead whales are helping scientists find out how long the whales can live. The whales are slow growing and don’t reach maturity until their 20s. Scientists said there is gathering proof that bowheads can live to be more than 100 years old.
As president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, Eugene Brower teaches whale biology to young men learning the tradition.
“Here’s the blow hole. Here’s the eye. All of this is nothing but bone in the back of the whale. In the middle is where the brain sits in the bowhead,” Brower said.
He said when new crews go to help butcher, it’s important they take a close look.
“So you have to know where your vital organs are on the bowhead are when you make a strike,” Brower said.
These lessons are important for harpooners such as Larry Ahvankana.
“You’re feeling the whole thing and you kind of judge and practice how you are going to throw it,” Ahvankana said, demonstrating with a harpoon.
In the last century, harpoons have modernized.
“You pack it with black powder and then you put it together,” Ahvankana said.
As whalers continue to pass on their traditions, biologists are also learning from the harvest they take from the sea.
North Slope Borough Biologist Craig George said ivory, stone and bone harpoon points have been found embedded in the blubber of recently landed whales. These types of weapons have not been used by subsistence hunters in a long time.
“Archaeologists say some of last use of them was in the 1880s or so,” George said.
They are finds scientists say help prove that some bowhead whales likely outlived a generation of hunters.
“Confirmed that some animals may be well into their 100s, may be 200 years old,” George said.
The hunters’ lost tools have returned, caught on the past and carried into the future by creatures that swim across human lifetimes.
Study of the whales’ eyes is reinforcing the findings. Eye proteins change slowly after a whale matures, and scientists said studies confirm bowhead whales can live to be more than a century old.
This spring a whaling crew in Barrow found what is believed to be a fragment from an explosive casing from the late 1800s. It’s something that would have been used by Yankee whaling crews likely commercially hunting the bowheads. Another six finds in recent years have been scientifically documented.
“A primary reason certain species of whales have not rebounded after the international moratorium on whaling went into effect is that they take a long time to reach sexual maturity. This is common in long lived species. If these highly intelligent beings take so long to reach sexual maturity and are so long lived, why are we still killing them?”