Whales came close to being extirpated from the waters around Svalbard after Europeans harvested them for three centuries for blubber and baleen. One species, the bowhead, also known as the Greenland right whale, was reduced from perhaps 50,000 to fewer than a hundred individuals in the archipelago midway between continental Europe and the North Pole.
We did not see the now-very-rare bowhead during our weeklong cruise through Svalbard early in the summer of 2014, but our ship, National Geographic Explorer, had some dramatic encounters with humpbacks, and there were also excellent sightings of fin whales and belugas.
David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.
Belugas and humpback whales were also harvested for a long time, but now they are making a recovery in Svalbard’s waters where the giant cetaceans are protected. The people who come for them now shoot with cameras, not harpoons. The prizes are recorded images, memories and an appreciation of whales for their immense size and beauty and the critical role they play in the marine ecosystem. The presence — or absence — of whales, we now know, has profound implications for the food web and the wellbeing of other species, including millions of birds.
The “Right Whale”
Bowheads were the main target of the earliest whale hunters in Svalbard, who described the ocean as so thick with the animals that they had to cut a path through them. The slow-swimming cetacean was found to be the “right whale” to hunt because it is particularly blubbery and its natural buoyancy keeps it afloat even when it is dead. Dozens of stations were set up on the islands to flay the carcasses and boil the blubber for its oil, a valuable commodity in Europe as fuel for illumination.
Louwrens Hacquebord, director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen and director of the Willem Barentsz Polar Institute, published a paper in 1999 about the hunting of the bowheads, the way shifting climate impacted the industry, and the consequences for Svalbard’s natural systems still seen today.
“Annual catch records made it possible to calculate the original size of the whale population; its natural migration pattern in the Greenland Sea could be reconstructed using shipping logs and itineraries. Other written sources revealed that besides human hunting activities, climate change played an important role in the elimination of the Greenland right whale from the Arctic marine ecosystem. This elimination made millions of plankton available for other marine mammals, polar cod and plankton-feeding birds. This has caused a major shift in the food web, changing the marine ecosystem in Svalbard,” he noted in the summary of his paper.
It’s a fascinating document if you’re interested in this subject. (PDF: The hunting of the Greenland right whale in Svalbard, its interaction with climate and its impact on the marine ecosystem.)
Bowheads, the Oldest Living Animals?
Eye tissue analysis indicates that bowheads can live 100 years and in some cases 160 to 180 years old, Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, told National Geographic in 2006. “They are truly aged animals, perhaps the most aged animals on Earth.” Adults can reach 60 feet (18 meters) long and weigh more than 100 tons (89 metric tons).
Prior to joining National Geographic Explorer for our expedition through Svalbard in June, we were given a tour of the Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen, where the history of the whaling industry in the archipelago is very well presented, along with artifacts used by whalers. They were tough centuries for the hunted and the hunters, and many of the men who came to Svalbard did not survive the extreme conditions.
Physical remnants of the whaling industry around the islands are cultural relics today and may not be disturbed. They take the form of decaying whalers’ huts and beach stations for butchering whales and boiling blubber. Bleached bones are grim testimony to thousands of marine mammals that lost their lives. An unknown number of whalers were buried in shallow graves, many of them covered in mounds of rocks because pits could not be excavated deep enough in the permafrost.
A tour of the whaling exhibit was just what was needed to heighten appreciation of seeing live and healthy whales unmolested in their habitat. And we did not have to wait long to see our first whales. As National Geographic Explorer pulled out of Longyearbyen at the start of our adventure, we were called out to the observation desk to watch a pod of 17 beluga whales. Also known as white whales, they are the most numerous cetacean species in the area of Svalbard and also the most commonly observed whale in the archipelago, says the Norwegian Polar Institute on a website about the beluga. We sailed with the belugas for a while before turning up a fjord to see if we could find polar bears.
There were to be several other whale sightings during our week through Svalbard, but none as magical as when we were in the midst of a group of humpbacks and fin whales, so close that we could clearly hear their loud blows as they came up for air. Hundreds of birds would see the whales rising through the water column, squawking excitedly as they rushed to meet them. We quickly learned the birds were a reliable alert system to where to point and focus our cameras in readiness for the rising whales. It was a spectacle of raw nature as good as it can get, and it underscored how Svalbard is truly one of the world’s best places to see wildlife.
We spent a lot of time with the whales. Fingers frozen, eyes watering and nose streaming in the bitter Arctic wind, many of us stayed out on deck until at last Explorer turned away from the whales to continue on our way. It was an experience all the more poignant with the knowledge of what had happened in these waters in previous centuries and how close we came to robbing Earth of these great animals.
In my next post I write about the fossils of Svalbard and the National Geographic scientist who has been mining the Triassic parts of the islands for 150-million-year-old sea monsters.
National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic
Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.
More about National Geographic Explorer.
More from National Geographic about Whales
Video: Lifestyles of Beluga Whales
Video: Bowhead Whale
Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)