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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Whale of a Sliver

Air Date: Week of

This harpoon tip discovered inside a recently killed bowhead whale was probably fired into the animal around 115 years ago by an Inuit hunting party. (Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)

An old harpoon tip was discovered lodged in the body of a whale recently killed by Eskimo hunters in the Arctic Ocean. Historians date the weapon to be roughly from 1890, which means the bowhead whale was at least 125 years old when it was killed.



CURWOOD: Sometime in the late 1800s, probably around 1890 or so, a male bowhead whale swimming in the Arctic waters off Alaska encountered a band of Eskimo hunters.

One of the hunters fired a harpoon, hitting the whale in the neck. But the bowhead didn’t die and continued to swim the waters of the Arctic for about another 115 years. We know this because in May another band of Eskimo hunters killed the whale. And when the hunters carved up its 49-foot carcass, they found a piece of metal embedded in its neck.

BOCKSTOCE: It's a piece of brass about 3.5-4 inches long.

This harpoon tip discovered inside a recently killed bowhead whale was probably fired into the animal around 115 years ago by an Inuit hunting party.(Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)

CURWOOD: The tip of an explosive harpoon. And for the moment it sits on the desk of John Bockstoce, an historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. It turns out that the weapon was made in New Bedford, which at one time was the whaling capital of the world.

BOCKSTOCE: We examined the piece and found that it was a model made after a patent of 1879 which was only made from 1879 to 1885, we think. It would have had to be shipped to San Francisco, where the whaling fleet was based in those days, and carried to northern Alaska. So, 1890 seems to be a reasonable estimate of when it was used. Either earlier or later by a few years perhaps.

CURWOOD: So this find provides direct evidence for how long whales can live. Scientists usually use a rather obscure method to calculate the age of whales—they analyze amino acids in whales’ eyes. And they’ve concluded that some whales can live as long as 200 years. But the explosive spear tip found in this whale provides much clearer evidence of its age.

This type of harpoon was manufactured in New Bedford toward the end of the 1800s. It featured an exploding lance head that would detonate once it embedded itself in the whale hunter's prey. (Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)

BOCKSTOCE: The weapon exploded, but it didn't do much damage to whale because he lived 100 years of course.

CURWOOD: And consider this--It is possible the hunters who killed the ancient bowhead in May could be descended from the very same hunters who first attacked it more than a century ago. John Bockstoce says he found tiny scratches on the spearhead.

BOCKSTOCE: And that we think is an ownership mark that a native whaleman would have used. Because the Eskimos who have hunted whales for at least 2000 years up there for their subsistence, they mark their hunting equipment with their own particular brand. This has six little notches and we don't know who that person was, but it is definitely is unlike something that would have been done by say, a commercial whaleman at the same time.

CURWOOD: A century ago the whales were being hunted to the edge of extinction. Today, bowheads have rebounded, and though commercial whale hunting is generally illegal, Eskimos are still allowed under an international treaty to kill roughly 50 whales a year.



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