Whaling in the News

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From June 14, 2007

The One that Got Away – for nearly 150 Years 

(isn’t that a song by Jim Betts?)

NEW YORK–Inuit who caught a bowhead whale off Alaska have found a harpoon fragment lodged in its blubber that shows the 45-tonne mammal survived a similar hunt more than a century ago.

Experts got a rare insight into the age of one of the world’s longest-living species when they identified the 5¼ inch (13cm) projectile embedded in the whale’s neck as part of a bomb lance in use around 1890.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said John Bockstoce, a curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

Scientists normally estimate a whale’s age by chemical analysis of its eye lenses, which become cloudy as they age. It is rare to find one that has lived more than a century, but experts say that the oldest can be close to 200 years old.

“It confirms something that scientists have been coming up with independently by analysing eyeball layers,” Mr Bockstoce said. They have come to the conclusion that there are whales that live to more than a century up in the Arctic,” he added.

The bowhead, which lives only in Arctic waters, was once in danger of being hunted to extinction. But its population bounced back when demand for whalebone corsets plummetted.

The harpoon fragment was found by the crew of Captain Arnold Brower as they used chain saws to cut open a large bowhead whale they caught off Barrow on May 16.

It has been identified as the head of a bomb lance manufactured in the Massachusetts whaling centre of New Bedford between 1879 and 1885.

Generally fired from a heavy shoulder gun, the small metal cylinder was filled with explosives and equipped with a time-delay fuse so it would explode seconds after it was shot into the whale. The bomb lance was meant to kill the whale immediately and prevent it from escaping.

The device exploded and probably injured the whale, but it survived until it was killed by a similar explosive harpoon more than a century later.

“This model was only made from 1879 to 1885, by which time it was obsolete,” Mr Bockstoce said.

“You have to add a few more years for it to get to Alaska and a few more years of shelf life. We think it was probably used around 1890, plus or minus a few years.” He suggests that the lance fragment was manufactured in the waterfront New Bedford shop of Frank Brown based on a design by Ebenezer Pierce, who introduced a new patent in 1885.

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One Response to “Whaling in the News”

  1. Michael Tim Says:

    I love your site!

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