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Balaena Mysticetus, or Bowhead Whale

May 19, 2011


The whale principally hunted by William Scoresby, and the Greenland whale fleet, in the early nineteenth century, was Balaena Mysticetus: the Bowhead Whale, then also known as the Greenland Right Whale, or the Common Whale. This whale is native to the Arctic, and spends most of its life near the edges of the ice, migrating North and South as the seasons, and the limits of the ice, dictate. In 1811, stocks of Bowheads were declining, but still more than large enough to make whaling profitable in the Greenland Sea. A decade later, they were much more difficult to find, and whalers turned their attention to the Davis Strait. Commercial whaling continued, of course, until the early 1980s, by which time Bowhead whales were an endangered species, facing extinction. Populations have since grown, but they remain at risk. Around 60 Bowhead whales are still killed each year by indigenous human populations in Alaska.

Here is part of Scoresby’s description of Balaena Mysticetus, from his Account of the Arctic Regions, vol 1 (1820), (pp. 449-477:

This valuable and interesting animal, geneally called The Whale by way of eminence, is the object of our most important commerce to the Polar Seas,–is productive of more oil than any other of the Cetacea, and being less active, slower in its motion, and more timid than any other of the kind, of similar or nearly similar magnitude, is more easily captured.

Immediately beneath the skin lies the blubber, or fat, encompassing the whole body of the animal, together with the finsa and tail. Its colour is yellowish-white, or yellow or red. In the very young animal it is always yellowish-white. In some old animals , it resembles the colour of the substance of the salmon. It swims in water. Its thickness all round the body, is 8 or 10 to 20 inches, varying on different parts as well as in different individuals. The lips are composed almost entirely of blubber, and yield from one to two tons of pure oil each. … The blubber and the whalebone are the parts of the whale to which the attention of the fisher is directed. The flesh and boness, excepting the jaw-bones occasionally, are rejected. The blubber in its fresh state is without any unpleasant smell; and it is not until after the termination of the voyage, whe the cargo is unstowed, that a Greenland ship becomes disagreeable.

The bones of the fins are analogous, both in proportion and number, to those of the human hand.

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