Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Six ships comprising the “U.S. [Navy’s] Exploring Expedition” departed Norfolk, Virginia, in 1838 to survey the southern and central Pacific Ocean’s poorly known islands and potential ports.
Yankee commercial whalers from Nantucket Island first rounded Cape Horn in the late 1700s. Their pursuit of marine mammals, particularly pelagic sperm whales, had sharpened whalers’ navigational skills and motivation to develop Pacific resupply facilities in Honolulu. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes, expedition commander, had heeded all the lore and local knowledge he could obtain from whalers and their logbooks long before his eventful four-year expedition.
After returning to Washington D.C. in 1842, Wilkes spent the years up to the U.S. Civil War, organizing the scientific specimens, charts and ethnographic studies from the expedition into what became the core of the Smithsonian Institution collections.
Just before the Civil War broke out, Edwin L. Drake had drilled the first successful “rock oil” (petroleum) well in 1859. Yankee whalers’ success in hunting bowheads for whale oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas had already peaked. The Confederate Navy’s CSS Shenandoah nevertheless attacked the Yankee whaling fleet in the Bering and Chukchi seas in 1865 — the last armed skirmishes of the Civil War. In 1867, strategic concern for continued access to bowhead whales contributed to the federal decision to purchase Alaska from Imperial Russia.
During some 2,700 Arctic voyages between 1848 and World War I, whalers kept logbooks that even today inform modern researchers of past environmental and marine biological conditions. Whalers’ legacies to exploration and science included facilitating design and support of the USS Jeannette’s polar expedition of 1879-81 and logistic support of successful U.S. participation in the First International Polar Year’s Expedition to Utqiagvik (then called Barrow) in 1881-1883
The 20th century Cold War raised global awareness of the strategic importance of the Northern Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. This awareness led to selection of Barrow as the site for the U.S. Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in 1947. NARL, in turn, rewarded and strengthened decades of collaboration between Iñupiaq communities and academic and agency scientists. The North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management was founded in the 1980s under scientific guidance by Dr. Thomas F. Albert and key subsistence whaling captains, like Harry Brower, Sr.
Bowheads’ contributions to historical and biological knowledge accelerated. John Bockstoce of the New Bedford Whaling Museum published “Whales, Ice and Men” in 1986. Glenn Sheehan in the 1990s called Barrow (now Utqiagvik) a “science city.” In 1993, more than three dozen contributors assembled an 834-page book, “The Bowhead Whale,” edited by John Burns, Jerome Montague and Cleve Cowles. In 2021, using newer satellite, acoustic and other technology, 75 contributing authors amassed another 666-page volume entitled “The Bowhead Whale,” edited by J. C. “Craig” George and J.G.M. “Hans” Thewissen.
Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.