Whales Meet After 10,000 Years

Sep 25, 2011 By Deepa Gopal
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Scientists have confirmed that for the first time in 10,000 years, bowhead whales from the separate Pacific and Atlantic populations have crossed paths in the Canadian Arctic. A team of Danish and American scientists had attached small satellite transmitters to whales off the west coast of Greenland, and those off the north coast of Alaska in spring of 2010.

While some whales such as the humpback and blue whales follow traditional migration paths to warmer waters of the South, bowhead whales inhabit the northern Arctic seas throughout the year. For a week last September, as Canada's Arctic islands were experiencing historically low levels of ice, the two whales were both swimming around in Viscount Melville Sound north of Victoria Island.

The Atlantic and Pacific whales monitored in the study came within 80 miles (or 130 kilometers) of each other, and even crossed paths before returning to their home grounds. Until now, sea ice in the Northwest Passage had been assumed to be a physical barrier separating bowhead whales from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

What is the "Northwest Passage"?

The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean which winds through the numerous tiny islands that form an archipelago off the coast of North America. The waters of the Northwest Passage separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean. Navigating these waters was considered treacherous due to thick ice along the passage. Sir John Franklin, a 19th century British explorer disappeared with his crew when his ship locked in ice. The route was first navigated by Roald Amundsen between 1903-1906 and the first commercial ship crossed the passage in 1969. 

This passage was closed off during the Ice Age, and until 2007, it was considered dangerous to navigate throughout the year. Over the last four years, with decreasing arctic ice levels, the Northern Passage has opened up significantly over summer. 

Why is this find important?

Bones found in the islands off the Canadian archipelago suggest that the last time the whales occupied the region was 10,000 years ago. Bowhead whales are equipped with a domed bony head that can cut through thin ice.

With the opening of waterways, scientists predict that previously isolated communities of whales will now meet and interbreed, producing changes in the animal population and impacting the food webs in the region. In 2009, a seal-killing virus from the Atlantic was found to have affected Pacific sea otters in Alaska. The warming waters may create new pathways for pathogens -- such as infectious virus and bacteria, as well.

This find also gives us a view into how societies developed in the Arctic, as early settlers depended on whales for all their needs -- they ate their meat and blubber, built houses using their bones and burned their oil. It is believed that the present Inupiat Indians of Alaska are descended from the Thule people of Alaska, who followed the migrating whales to Canada and all the way to Greenland. 

With new migration routes for sea life and travel routes for humans opening up, the Arctic is in for a major change. The video below tracks the elusive and endangered bowhead whales.