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New Bedford Whaling Museum


NEW BEDFORD, MA (June 7, 2007) - - A nineteenth century bomb lance fragment, similar to lances manufactured in New Bedford, was found in a large bowhead whale in Barrow, Alaska, suggesting the whale was struck by the fragment around 1890.

Chemical analyses of bowhead eye lenses indicated that the whales have a lifespan of more than a century, with historical weapon fragments, such as stone end-blades and bone harpoon heads found in the blubber of recently captured animals, providing additional evidence of their longevity. The bomb lance fragment that was discovered embedded into the right scapula of a bowhead whale on May 16 was likely manufactured around 1880, adding further confirmation.

The fragment was found by the crew of Captain Arnold Brower, Sr. when they were harvesting their whale taken in May 2007 near Barrow, Alaska. The Alaska Eskimo subsistence bowhead whale hunt is managed through a cooperative agreement between NOAA and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC). Currently, there are 10 whale-hunting villages in Alaska recognized by the AEWC and NOAA. Recently their 5-year hunting quota was renewed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which allows for 255 whales to be harvested by 10 Alaskan villages over 5 years.

“One thing that really sets the North Slope Borough [where the bomb was found] program apart from whale research programs elsewhere is the degree of hunter participation in the research,” said NSB Wildlife Biologist Craig George. “The NSB and the whale hunters have had a long, 30-year history of working closely together on science projects in an atmosphere of mutual respect; it's been a winning formula in terms of science.”

Captain Arnold Brower, Sr. gave George the fragment remarking, “I know this finding is important to science, so I’m trusting you to find out everything you can about it.”

The fragment that was found by Brower was compared to bomb lances in the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and is similar in design and construction to a lance that was patented in 1879 by Ebenezer Pierce of New Bedford. Pierce later modified his patent in 1885, improving on the firing mechanism. The discovered fragment does not resemble the 1885 patent, indicating that the bomb lance was almost certainly manufactured between 1879 and 1885.

Bomb lances were introduced aboard whaleships in the seas near Barrow in the early 1850s. The lances allowed whale hunters kill the bowhead before it was able to escape to the protection of the pack ice.

“Bomb lances were small metal cylinders filled with an explosive and fitted with a time-delay fuse allowing it to explode a few seconds later, after it had been shot into the whale,” said John Bockstoce, D. Phil, adjunct curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “They were originally designed to be fired from a heavy shoulder gun, and later, a darting gun, which was fixed to the harpoon shaft and fired when a whale was struck by the harpoon.”

The discovered lance provides some insight into the possible age of the bowhead whale. The tip of the fragment has six small indentations which are likely the ownership marks of a native Alaskan whaling captain. Native whale hunters were slow to adopt non-traditional equipment, and it wasn’t until after commercial shore whaling stations were established that foreign equipment was used by native hunters.

Commercial shore whaling began in 1884 at Point Barrow and 1887 at Point Hope – and the natives did not incorporate the new industrialized weapons until a few years later. Also, inventories of bomb lances were typically used quite rapidly, therefore it seems likely that this particular bomb lance was fired in the late 1880s, suggesting that this bowhead is well over a century-old.

“The ownership mark on the tip of the bomb fragment indicates that it was probably used by a native whaleman,” Bockstoce said. “It is highly likely that this bomb probably was acquired by commercial shore whalers in the mid-1880s on the northwestern coast of Alaska, and used by one of the Eskimo whaling crews in their employ before many years had passed.”

The NSB plans to submit the eye lenses for chemical analysis to estimate the age of the whale. Because bowheads lack teeth (and ear plugs as in humpback whales), which can be sectioned to estimate age, chemical analysis of the eye lens provides the best technique for ageing old bowhead whales. While the “margin of error” is fairly high for this technique, it does offer useful estimates of age. Past eye lens analyses has indicated bowheads live well in excess of 100 years – possible to 150 or more.

The identification of the bomb lance fragment is just one of the many that the North Slope Borough and the New Bedford Whaling Museum have collaborated on as a part of their working relationship, fostered through the federal program, ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations). The program connects cultures that were initially introduced to one another via the global whaling industry.

“A formal collaboration between Barrow and New Bedford began with the establishment of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in 1996,” said Anne Brengle, president of the Whaling Museum. “A strong partnership has been forged in recent years by the ECHO Project, which funds sharing collections and information, student and teacher exchanges, internships, as well as joint artistic and cultural programs. Our collaboration on this recent discovery is another exciting example of how important it is to work together to use the past to inform the present and our evolving knowledge about bowhead whales and other marine mammals.”

The North Slope Borough encompasses 89,000 square miles of Arctic territory along the north coast of Alaska. The North Slope of Alaska is home to the age-old Iñupiat culture. It is also home to resources like oil and gas, which have enabled the Iñupiat, to enter the cash economy of the modern world with self-determination and an enduring respect for the survival skills taught to us by our ancestors. The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management facilitates sustainable harvests and monitors populations of fish and wildlife species through research, leadership, and advocacy from local to international levels. A major aspect of the DWM’s responsibilities is to conduct bowhead whale research; projects include: population abundance estimation (1981-present), harvest documentation, postmortem/health status examinations, and contaminant, anatomy, age estimation, reproductive, and other studies.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world's most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of whales and whaling. The cornerstone of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located in the heart of the city's historic downtown at 18 Johnny Cake Hill. Open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month, admission is free for members and children under the age of 6, $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (59+) and students with a valid ID, and $6 for children ages 6-14. For a complete calendar of events, visit the Museum online.

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