Bowhead Whale

Bruce Mate

Latin name: Balaena mysticetus

Bowhead whales are a US-harvested species by Alaskan native peoples, whose villages along the coast largely reflect the migration route of the bowhead whale, which has been an important subsistence species for this cultural.  Our tagging focused on this species in an area of offshore oil and gas development. We tagged bowhead whales off the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula in western arctic Canada during the feeding season and tracked them in the Beaufort Sea. One animal crossed the Chukchi Sea into Russian arctic waters above Wrangel Island. This was the first time this species had been tagged and tracked. We demonstrated that the whales moved as rapidly in 90% ice-cover as they did through open water, affirming their pagophilic (ice-loving) nature. Subsequent studies by others using similar techniques to those we developed have provided enormous insights into bowhead movements in the summer, fall and winter.

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If you would like to learn more about this research, read the following abstracts, or find the whole paper in the appropriate journal.

Satellite-monitored movements of radio-tagged bowhead whales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas during the late-summer feeding season and fall migration

B. R. Mate, G. K. Krutzikowsky and M. H. Winsor

Abstract: From 30 August to 6 September 1992, we tagged 12 juvenile bowhead whales with Argos satellite-monitored radio tags in the Canadian Beaufort Sea off the Mackenzie River Delta. Eight tags documented ³9820 km of movements between 392 locations during 111 whale-tracking days. The whales did not move in unison. Individual movements and average speeds (1.1 to 5.8 km/h) varied widely. One whale stayed in Mackenzie Bay for 23.5 d while the rest stayed an average of only 2.4 d. The majority of locations for all whales were in shallow water: 65% in <50 m and 87% in <100 m. Seven whales went into water >100 m and four were in water >500 m. The whale with the longest record traveled ³3886 km to Siberia in 32.5 d, averaging 5.0 km/h. Its westerly route through the Beaufort and Chukchi seas was between 70-72ºN and primarily in heavy ice (³90% coverage) which was continuous west of 151ºW. This whale’s speed was not significantly slower in heavy ice than in more open water. This is the first documentation of the detailed route and speed for a bowhead whale during its fall migration from Canadian to Russian waters.

Canadian Journal of Zoology 78:1168-1181 (2000)

Dive and surfacing characteristics of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas

G.K. Krutzikowski and B.R. Mate

Abstract: We received data from eight bowhead whales instrumented with satellite monitored radio tags for 3 to 33 days. Of 42,306 dives made by eight whales during 1695 h, 9573 were sounding dives (>1 min). Mean duration of sounding dives for individuals varied from 6.9 to 14.1 min ( = 10.4 ± 2.4 min, n = 8). Five whales recorded dives ³61 min; longest dives for the other three were 56, 45, and 32 min. Five tags measured maximum depths of 29,499 dives during 1220 h and time-at-depth during 1228 h. All five whales dived >100 m; the deepest dive was 352 m. Whales spent most of their time at depths £16 m, but three whales spent most of their time >48 m during some sampling periods. Mean surfacing rates ranged from 18.2 to 47.0 surfacings/h (= 26.2 ± 9.0, n = 8). Tags were exposed to air 4.0 to 7.3% of the time (= 5.5 ± 0.95, n = 8), and whales were potentially visible from aircraft 8.5 to 16.4% of the time (= 11.1 ± 2.4, n = 8). Three whales made longer sounding dives and had lower surfacing rates when in ice cover ³90%. No consistent diel patterns were found.

Canadian Journal of Zoology 78:1182-1198 (2000)