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Bowhead whales

Whale watching in Russia

Bowhead whales, like frightened calves, rushed closer and closer to the coast, fleeing from the killer whales. In a panic, they lined up in the shape of a «box» hoping that it can help them to repel an attack from the killer whales and prevent the mother-whale and her calf from being captured. Despite their enormous size and weight of one hundred tons, the bowhead whales are still not able to defend themselves from killer whales. If evolution would not be so greedy, these giants could have bigger brains, and we would not watch this drama from the shore. If the «Greenlanders» were a little smarter, they would not have any enemies in the ocean.

Well this time everything worked out, the killer whales only scared the «Greenlanders» to death, and confidently, almost grinning, retreated far back into the sea. The bowhead whales could not calm down for a long time. Some of them hit the water with their tail, some went deep in the ocean. It’s dangerous to get closer to them on a paddleboard or on a boat in such moments, the whales are nervous and can easily hit with their tail anything that appears in their personal space. 

Tragedies, like the one I witnessed in the morning in Wrangel Bay, not far from the Shantar Islands, happen regularly in this area. In early July, as soon as the Sea of ​​Okhotsk is free of ice, bowhead whales come here. Nobody knows why they come exactly to these unusually warm waters at 55 latitude, in the southwestern part of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk.  Well, even scientists don’t have enough information about this southern isolated population of the bowhead whales.

Every summer in Wrangel Bay, a very interesting community gathers together. Film crews from such popular science channels as BBC and Discovery turn the area into a campground; scientists from all over the world come here to conduct research, as well as adventurers - whale watchers and underwater photographers.

Once a whale family appears within sight, camera drones immediately rush upwards, cameramen rush into boats, many «sappers» row towards the sea giants. On such days, whales are scared to come closer, all this fuss is too tiring for their Nordic nature. And only with the appearance of killer whales, will the bowhead whales stop being cautious.

Bowhead whales, also known as Greenland Right Whales or Polar Whales (Balaena mysticetus), are one of the rare centenarians on our planet. According to the AnAge database of animal longevity, the confirmed age of these whales is up to 211 years. But that might not be the limit. They say, these whales do not have an Aging Phenomenon, the bowhead whales do not get as old as they could and do not die naturally. The reasons are often: suffocation under the ice, death from diseases, attacks by killer whales, or getting tangled in ropes and tackle, as they swim near the surface of the sea. The age of bowhead whales can only be determined by DNA analysis. Not many facts are known about reproduction or about their lifestyle. Researchers only know that the gestation period is 13 months with females producing a calf once every three years.

 

  • Orange fact
    Male bowhead Whales never repeat their songs for mating calls, every breeding season the males sing new ones.

Bowhead whales are one of three species that always live in the Arctic. The main distinguishing feature of the whales is a large massive head, which is one third of the body size, that helps them to punch through thick layers of ice. It allows them to travel through the arctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere. Often, a group of bowhead whales is followed by narwhals and beluga whales so that they can breathe through the bowhead’s broken ice trail. The bowhead whale has the longest baleen. Its mouth, like a huge ladle, reaches up to 4 meters in length!

You can watch whales in Wrangel Bay right from the shore, sitting like a skua on the rocks. In the early morning, make your way through huge boulders, sit on a flat stone and wait for the «Greenlanders» to come up and scratch themselves on the rocks. Whales come to the Shantar Islands via a large loop - from a rock on the opposite side of the bay to a «scratching» stone and finally to the cape on the other side.

Sometimes you have to wait a long time, sometimes for three days, but it is worth it at the end. It is incredibly exciting to watch these giants from just a few meters away. Their two-humped backs slowly appear above the water, whales take a few breaths, pose a little and dive into the depths of the sea. Don’t forget to press the shutter release of your camera, being so exited during this great moment, it happens often!

ven with a smartphone you can take great pictures. But the best photos are taken only from a camera drone: huge black shadows in emerald water! Just be ready to catch the moment. During whale watching from the rocks, it is important to monitor the tides. If you are late, the water will rise too high and cut off the path to the camp. In the worst case - you will have to wait for 6 hours on the stones until the next low tide.

 

 

According to the chronicles, once before the beginning of the whaling industry, the captains who were travelling to Svalbard often had to literally make a pathway through the herds of whales, there were so many of them. In the 19th century, the bowhead whale became the primary and a very easy object of prey for whalers in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, because of their slowness. It was so easy to catch up to the whales even on a rowboat and kill with a harpoon. The carcasses, moreover, did not sink. Every year "squadrons of two hundred ships, were killing up to 50 whales a day near the Shantar Islands." The Governor of Eastern Siberia, General Muravyov-Amursky, reported that: "in Sea of ​​Okhotsk alone there were at least 250 whaling ships this year, all with a large rank and with a large crew." According to some reports, more than 6,600 whales were killed in the Okhotsk Sea in just a couple of years, from 1855 to 1857.

Whales were hunted even during the ban, poachers killed whales until 1970. Just think about it: more than six thousand whales were killed! Today, the Okhotsk population of bowhead whales, according to the roughest estimates, is only about 400. In the world – only about 1.5 - 2 thousand. The population of the bowhead whale, fortunately, recovered in the polar waters, very slowly though. Today, whaling is only allowed by Indigenous people, any other is prohibited. In addition, since 2013, the Shantar archipelago has the status of a national park, which also helps keep the whales safe.

 

But, there is another big threat - global warming. Melting polar ice caps will cause ocean currents and winds. Bowhead whales, who are living exclusively in polar waters, will be among the first to suffer from this catastrophe. And it's not clear if they can survive at the end. Anyway, to watch them at arm's length is very exciting. And this meeting is definitely worth a long trip to the Russian Far East.

 

Why do whales jump onto the shore?

 

There are four main scientific explanations for whale suicides.

  • Death in the ocean. The whale died and his body washed on the shore.
  • Plastic. Whales in the ocean swallow a lot of it. When their stomach is full of plastic, mammals can no longer eat, they quickly become exhausted, and the whales become disoriented.  Whales suffer the most when they confuse plastic for a meal of squid. Please make your contribution to the fight against plastic in the oceans: do not buy plastic bags, refuse plastic straws and other things that pollute the oceans.
  • Loud sounds in the ocean. Due to military exercises, sonar waves, and seismic exploration the inner ear of a whale can be damaged. This leads to disorientation and death of the animals.
  • Iron ore deposits. According to one of the versions, such deposits affect the magnetic compass in the whale's head. Those deposits are often found by the coast of New Zealand.

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
The route to the Shantar Islands is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
You can buy a tour to the Shantar Islands on the "Russia Discovery": www.russiadiscovery.ru

   

Also you can read about the Shantar Islands:
Shantar Islands: Somewhere beyond the fog
Shantars: Tips and Lifehacks
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

 

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