Supercool Totally Awesome Fact of the Day: in 2007 parts of a harpoon that dated back to the 1880s were recovered from the body of a bowhead whale, meaning this whale had survived an attack that took place as much as 120 years prior to its final capture. Since Bowheads reach sexual maturity at about the age of 20, it is quite probable that this particular whale was alive during the American Civil War. Whalers fired the harpoon either during or shortly before the Gilded Age, a decade which saw the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Spanish-American War, the discovery of x-rays, the Klondike Gold Rush, and the publication of numerous classics such as the first Sherlock Holmes story, The Jungle Book, Dracula, and The Heart of Darkness. It was a long time ago, in other words, and the whale not only outlived its attackers, but their grandchildren and likely their great grandchildren as well.
This was not the first time lance fragments had been used to determine the longevity of bowheads. In 1890 a whaling iron was extracted that bore the mark of a ship called the Montezuma, known to have made her last voyage in 1853. It had not been possible to date recent finds with such precision, however, until the 2007 recovery of an explosive kind of harpoon known as a bomb lance. The lance was well enough preserved that it could be identified as a type originally patented in 1879, then made obsolete when the patent was updated in 1885 and thus not manufactured past that time. Any remaining stores would have been used relatively quickly, leading experts to believe it was likely fired no later than the early 1890s. Learn more about this unique method of measuring the age of these long lived whales here.
Commercial whaling of bowheads had for the most part ceased by 1921, when there were only 3000 left in the world. Conservation efforts since then have brought those numbers back up to between 7000 and 10,000. Bowheads are still hunted, but only for subsistence by indigenous peoples, and only within quotas set by the International Whaling Commission. Learn how this compromise was reached in the landmark court case Adams v. Vance here. Go to the Office of Protected Species under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn more about these magnificent, resilient creatures.