A Whale Of A Find

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Last summer, while butchering a 50-ton bowhead whale off the coast of Alaska, Inupiat hunters found a more-than-100-year-old harpoon lance lodged deep inside its neck. John Bockstoce, the history of whaling expert at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, identified the harpoon as part of an exploding lance made on the southeast coast of Massachusetts in the late 1800s.

Bockstoce and his colleagues believe the lance was used between 1885 and 1895 because the lance was patented and supplies were used up quickly. Wildlife biologist Craig George from the Department of Wildlife Management in Alaska’s North Slope Borough surmises that the animal was a calf when harpooned; the lance exploded but failed to kill it.

New England whalers nearly hunted the bowhead to extinction, but the population came back after whalebone corsets fell out of favor. Today, international treaties ban commercial whaling, except for indigenous natives of Alaska, Russia, and Greenland.

The discovery of the lance adds to growing evidence that bowhead whales can live beyond a century.

John F. Ross