Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Bowhead Whales

Bowheads are the largest whale by mass, but they hold another intriguing record-breaking title. Research suggests that these whales can live to be well over a century. See why the key to their longevity may be their Arctic habitat.

Video Transcript

In the Arctic, Inuit depend on hunting marine mammals—seals, polar bears, walruses, and whales—for food and the materials provided by skin and bones. But in 2007, these Inuit whale hunters found much more than just that.

This is a bowhead whale. At first glance, you might not find anything special about this catch, besides its size. Bowheads are the largest whale by mass, and this one is big—really big!—weighing in at over 100 tons. But this whale's surprise was not its size.

Looking closer, as the Inuit hunters scanned the whale's skin, they found a harpoon head embedded within the thick blubber. Further research revealed this harpoon was over 120 years old, originating from a specific factory in New England in 1880.

The necropsy revealed the whale itself was roughly 130 years old. It had been living with that harpoon under its skin for over a century. And this wasn't the first centenarian whale! Since 1981, Inuit hunters have found half a dozen whales with harpoon fragments in them.

As long as that seems in human terms, many bowhead whales that managed to escape the days of industrial whaling have lived to be over a century—sometimes even two. But just how does a mighty creature live for so long?

The key to bowheads' longevity may be their Arctic habitat and the unique adaptations they've developed. These animals were practically built for the Arctic. Their colossal, uniquely shaped heads amount to a third of their body weight, and are used to break through the thick Arctic ice, when necessary, to breathe.

The lack of dorsal fins helps bowheads easily coast under the ice—a good way to avoid whalers. But their thick blubber is the real key to their survival. The bowhead is protected by its blubber from freezing Arctic waters. But as a huge animal in a cold environment, the bowhead has a slow metabolism, which may help explain its extreme lifespan.

Living for 200 years is impressive, but even more impressive is that these Arctic creatures have lived incredibly long lives, all while being hunted by whalers. Inuit folklore holds that whales could live as long as two human lives and Inuit hunters could use identifying scars to keep track of the whales they depended on throughout generations.

Learning more about longevity in whales may actually help we humans live longer lives too. A research team from the University of Liverpool is looking at just how these bowhead whales age. The fact that they're so large and live so long, while seemingly avoiding severe diseases, is something worth looking into.

These whales have a thousand times more cells than we humans do. In theory, they should have a much higher chance of dying of cancer and other diseases, but for some reason, they don't seem to.

Whatever the reason, and whether we ever learn to live as long as whales, it's clear that the bowhead, like other creatures of the Arctic, has a lot to teach us—if only we're willing to learn.