Worth Defending: Bowhead Whale

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Bowhead Whale, © Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock

© Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock

by James Randolph

These Arctic heavyweights use their massive bow-shaped heads to crash through sea ice—and they also smash a couple of records. Weighing in at up to 60 tons, bowhead whales hold the record for the biggest mouth of any living animal and they have the densest blubber, measuring up to 2-feet thick.

In a whale’s world it’s a bonus to be big, and that means bowheads have few natural predators. Even so, by the early 20th century, whalers had nearly pushed the population into the abyss, relentlessly hunting bowheads for their bones and blubber—key ingredients in household products of the day like corsets and oil.

Today many countries including the United States have strict laws prohibiting commercial whaling, but threats persist. Scientists say that new plans to drill for oil off Alaska’s northern coast could harm these graceful goliaths. If they’re right, being “hardheaded” may not be enough for bowheads to hang on.

Saving Something Wild

Defenders has long fought in the courts and in Congress to stop offshore drilling in the Arctic’s remote, fragile and wildlife-abundant waters. The latest threat is Shell Oil’s plans to drill smack-dab in the middle of the bowhead whale’s migration route. Under this plan, drilling would start as soon as next summer. Ignoring the many lessons of the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration approved Shell’s drilling proposal without a suitable cleanup plan in place should an oil spill happen in the Arctic’s icy waters.

But an oil spill is not the only risk. Shell estimates close to 5,600 migrating bowheads—almost half the population—could be exposed to disturbances from drilling and icebreaking. Seismic waves used to locate oil, for example, disorient whales and other sea mammals that rely on high-pitch sounds to navigate the icy depths. This could harm the bowhead population, particularly mothers and young calves who might avoid feeding areas.

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