A recent article in the Alaska Dispatch celebrated the recent population rebound of bowhead whales off Alaska’s North Slope. The bowheads had been hunted to near extinction. A whale count in 1978 estimated that only 1,200 bowhead whales remained in the region. The most recent count estimates the population to be between 14,000 to 15,000. The Smithsonian magazine blog picked up on one statement in the article: “the creatures can live longer than 200 years” with the realization that some of these whales might have been alive when Herman Melville penned his classic novel “Moby Dick.”
But how does one measure a whale’s age? In 2007, a 50-ton bowhead whale caught off the Alaskan coast was found to have a fragment of an explosive bomb lance buried in the blubber beneath its neck. The lance was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts and is believed to date from around 1890. Likewise, ivory and slate lance points have been found buried in whales, suggesting that these whales were hunted by native peoples prior to the arrival of European whalers in the early 1800s. Based on these findings, studies of amino acid racemization process in the whales’ eyes have found one individual that could be 211 years old. Judging from the lance artifacts and the amino acid dating, it is indeed possible that some bowhead whales living today may have been alive when Melville wrote Moby Dick, 162 years ago.
Of course, Ahab in Moby Dick did not hunt bowheads. He was after sperm whales and one white sperm whale in particular. How long do sperm whales live? Interestingly enough, sperm whale teeth grow new layers of enamel yearly so that the age of a whale can be estimated by the number of layers in its teeth, not unlike counting the rings of a tree. Based on this, scientists estimate that the life span of sperm whales is typically similar to that of humans, around 70 years.