Tuesday 31 December 2013

Highlight of the year - bow head whale

This is definitely the highlight of all the highlights of my year. I thought seeing walrus or polar bear in the arctic would be the tops, but I was most moved by seeing this bow head whale.

Arctic shorts - bowhead whale from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.
Ever since watching footage on the telly I have dreamed of seeing one of these animals. I never really expected to. But up in the northerly ocean, among the pack ice, we were blessed with the most amazing encounter. Four times the whale surfaced (either that or four separate whales did, which seems unlikely), and by some miracle Bill caught it on film. It moved so gracefully, as if setting an example to us all to be peaceful, to grow old gently and to slow down.

Bow head whales live for hundreds of years. They communicate with eachother over vast distances. What knowledge do they accumulate over this time?

They live in the arctic all year round, so they are massively blubbery - they're the second biggest whales in the world, after the blue. This huge amount of blubber made them targets of whalers. They are slow-moving and float when harpooned, which led the hunters to call them the 'Right Whale'. The result, however, was that they were slaughtered in their thousands and now there are hardly any of them left.

On Svalbard we went to whaling camp after whaling camp, and among the whale bones and detritus I learned of the almost unbelievable massacre of whales, walruses and polar bears by Dutch, British, Norwegian, Russian and other hunters over just the last few centuries. When European whalers arrived in the arctic, these animals were in profusion. Nowadays there are hardly any left.

I was staggered to learn that nowhere on Svalbard is there a memorial to the slaughtered animals, though there are plenty of plaques and monuments to their killers and to all kinds of foolhardy expeditions and bonkers mining schemes that ended in tragedy. It is time to rectify this situation, and remember the arctic wildlife, before it's too late.

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