Bowheads!

Bowhead whales are large, slow swimming baleen whales that spend their entire lives in Arctic or sub-Arctic waters. The population that we study winters in the Bering Sea and summers mainly in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. In fall, they migrate across the Alaskan Beaufort Sea and into the Chukchi Sea. Our aerial surveys are documenting their fall migration path as well as their occurrence and distribution in relation to offshore oil and gas exploration.

The three whales below are all adults. The one on the far left has a white chin, which is fairly common on bowhead whales (the one in the middle has a white chin also although it is more difficult to see underwater).  Bowheads also commonly have white tails although, as shown here, many do not.  Adults are often >50’ in length.

Sometimes we get lucky and see calves.  On one flight in 2008, we saw eight cow-calf pairs in a fairly small area.  Bowhead newborn calves are about one-third the total length of the cow. The calf at the left is larger than that so is likely not a newborn but still probably a calf of the year.

There are actually three whales In the photo to the right. The pink arrow points to a fairly small, light gray bowhead calf.  The red arrow is the flukes of an adult whale that has started to dive.  And the yellow arrow points to a white chin patch on a whale that is underwater.

In this photo, there is an adult and two fairly small calves, one just to the left of the cow and one behind the cow in the upper left hand corner of the photo. Bowheads do not have twins; the second calf’s mother was just out of the frame of this shot.

Bowheads will feed near the bottom, in the water column and, as this photo shows, at the surface. This is actually at least two whales.  The one on the left has its mouth open - the white is the tip of the lower jaw and the baleen is clearly visible in its mouth.  The squarish-looking black thing “on the top” of the whale is actually one of its pectoral flippers.

In 2009, we will be back doing aerial surveys once again and hopefully will get more great shots. My thanks to L. Morse, G. Friedrichson, J. Childs and J. Mocklin for sharing such great photos!

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