The following discussion and associated images of the scientific study of bowhead whales are derived from presentations given by J. Craig George of the North Slope Borough, Department of Wildlife Management. Any mistakes are the full responsibility of the webmaster.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (NSB DWM) has been working with whaling captains and crews for over two decades. Research efforts have focused on many different aspects of bowhead whale biology and behavior. The following discussion is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather provide an overview of the work of the NSB DWM.

Bowhead Census
The bowhead census is one the most important tasks undertaken by the NSB DWM. The census is conducted biannually. The results of the census help to determine the annual bowhead quota for AEWC member villages. In the past, the size of the bowhead population was underestimated. A significant percentage of the whales swimming past the counting locations were passing under the ice and therefore going undetected. The whales are able to break the ice and breath, also making them more difficult to detect (image 1, image 2, image 3). In order to address this problem, acoustic techniques were developed that allow scientists to listen to the whales passing under the ice, therefore obtaining a more accurate count. (Maggie Ahmaogak provides further information regarding the history of the bowhead census)

Bowhead Health
Another objective of the NSB DWM is to evaluate the health of whales that have been successfully hunted. Samples, measurements, and observations are recorded from each animal. One source of injury that is observed on some whales is the result of ship propellers. Whales are resilient animals and are capable of surviving such encounters, but scars are frequently left as reminders (image 4)

Scientists take samples and perform a series of tests on successfully hunted animals to determine the presence of pollutants and to evaluate the health of the animals. Testing has repeatedlyshown that bowhead whales contain very low levels of known pollutants and are a very high quality food source (image 5 ).

Bowhead health is not only affected by human interactions. Killer whales are also known to attack bowheads and other whales. Killer whales sometimes remove the tongue of their prey or leave other, more superficial, wounds (image 6)

Archaeologists have also been able to identify the species and size of whales that have been hunted over the last 2000 years or more. Measurements are taken on several types of bones to also determine the size of the whales that were hunted. Information gathered from these techniques has produced a greater understanding of size and species selection throughout the development and history of whaling. Click here to view a labeled skeleton of a bowhead whale.

Bowhead age
No one is sure how long bowhead whales live, though we do have some clues. A harpoon head and several end blades (image 7, image 8) have been found in whales landed on the North Slope over the past several years. Some of the examples in the two previous images were likely placed in the whale over 100 years ago. This information, along with observations recorded regarding biological change, is helping to clarify the life expectancy of bowhead whales. (add info from Craig's poster).

Whale Recovery
The NSB DWM has also provided additional information regarding the recovery of successfully hunted animals. It should be noted that precise procedures vary from village to village, but the general process is the same. Following a successful hunt, towing lines are attached to the animal. It requires the help of many people to successfully tow the whale to the ice edge or shore (image 9).

When the whale is successfully towed to the ice edge/shore, a series of straps and pulleys (block and tackle) are attached to the whale's tail just above the fluke. The straps and pulleys are then used to pull the whale from the water (image 10, image 11).

With some exceptions, whales are generally butchered on the sea ice. The meat,muktuk, baleen, and all other usable parts are then hauled back to the village via sled and snow machine. It is very important to recover  the whale and butcher it soon after it has been taken. If too much time passes, the whale will begin to spoil from the inside out. The thick layer of blubber that serves to keep the whale warm continues to trap its heat even after the whale is dead (image 12).

Successful hunts are followed by open house celebrations hosted by the captain of the successful crew and his wife. The whole community is welcome to attend as well as visitors from outside the village if they happen to be around. Different parts of the whale are prepared in a variety of manners for the open house (image 13). For further information regarding modern whaling, see the sections by Maggie Ahmaogak and Barbara Bodenhorn.