Arviq — Bowhead Whale

Arviq, the bowhead whale, is the most endangered species in the Arctic. Although this immense, mysterious dweller of the northern oceans is now seldom seen, it once formed a major part of Inuit life. Nowadays, its name evokes respect, awe, and many memories of the old days when whale hunts united widespread communities for the great pursuit. In ancient sacred language, the bowhead was known as taklaingiq, the "one who must not be mentioned", probably in reference to the rule forbidding one from calling an animal by name while it was being hunted.

Inuit knowledge of the bowhead whale is a little less detailed than that of other species, partly because whales spend a lot of time far out at sea where they are difficult to observe. Nevertheless, the Inuit have made many observations of the habits of bowheads around Nunavut. In the spring, whales migrate towards the floe edge, where they aggregate near the ice. Later in the year, they disperse to spend the summer throughout nearshore waters. They regroup in the fall before migrating out to the open offshore waters where they spend the winter. Few bowheads are seen at this time, as they are far away from where the Inuit hunt at the floe edge.

… there was a certain season that bowhead whales started to penetrate deeper into the inlets to start feeding. This would be late into July when the ice is breaking up. … The snow buntings had a part to play in the timing of bowhead whales going into the fiords to feed. [when the chicks hatch in late July, then bowheads will be entering the fiords to feed ]. …then the hunters used to go whale hunting further into the land (Koneeloosie Nutarak, Sr., Pond Inlet).

…bowhead whales started to penetrate deeper into the inlets to start feeding… late into July when the ice is breaking up. That was also the time that they would be feeding without fear of predators such as killer whales (Kooneeloosie Nutarak, Sr., Pond Inlet).

They [bowheads] go away during the fall just before the ice forms – just like the narwhal. When the narwhal goes away, they go away at the same time. Josephee Keenainak, Pangnirtung

Whales give birth to their young in the summer, probably in special calving areas. Inuit report seeing many calves in the northern Foxe Basin, which they suspect to be a "nursery" area. Newborn calves can be recognized by their small size and reddish skin colour. Some Inuit describe how the mother whale gives birth, and note that females are very protective of their offspring.

… we noticed that when they are migrating back [in the fall] there are usually smaller bowhead whales with them. Perhaps this is due to calving. … we suspect these are calves and for sure there is a calving area somewhere up North. ...it is in that area [Igaliqtuuq] that I saw two calves being born, they are a similar size as beluga and once they were born they surfaced right away… They took a long time to bear their calves and when they are in labour the other bowhead whales are very protective of the female who is about to bear a calf (Apak Qaqqasiq, Pangnirtung).

…[I have seen] many bowhead whales around Qakijaaq. … this would be before Kuugaajuk/ Kogalu River. I had noticed a couple of calves, I think they were just newborn calves because they were sort of a reddish brownish colour. There were lots of bowhead whales over there and I think they were giving birth to their calves. These two small whales were… smaller than the narwhal… I think their mother[s] had just given birth to them. These two small calves were around the more shallow part of the water and they never went down into the water so I thought they were just newborn. …there would also be two big bowhead whales around them and I thought they might have been the mothers (Jacobie Panipak, Clyde River).

… there were lots of bowhead whales at the floe edge .. a bowhead calf was approached by the hunting party [which was on the ice] … they were faced with a lot of water [splashing] … the bowhead whale's mother was circling the area and causing a lot of turbulence, because she was protecting her calf. The young people and others at that time were warned not to get too close to a calf… they say [mother bowheads] are very dangerous as they protect their calves (Joseph Oqallak, Arctic Bay).

Older calves, yearlings that have not yet left their mother, are described as ingutuit. Juvenile whales follow their mothers, but gradually range farther afield and may join groups of other younger whales.

The ones referred to as inutui [ingutuq] were the ones that had been calves. … they still tasted like milk… These are the ones that were born last year [now one year old], they are referred to as being alone… (Pauloosie Kooneeliusie, Qikiqtarjuaq).

Although they are the largest inhabitants of the Arctic Ocean, bowhead whales are not entirely safe from pursuit. Often they travel into shallow inshore waters and areas around the ice edge in order to avoid being attacked by groups of orcas (killer whales). These smaller, predatory members of the dolphin family are known as aarluit, or "the wolves of the sea", and can kill large bowheads. Inuit remark on the relationship between the two species, noting that in some regions bowheads have increased in numbers since the decline of orcas.

… when I was a child in Palligvik/Padloping Island, I don't remember seeing that many bowhead whales – and there were more killer whales (aarluit) back then; but later on in time as the aarluit began to diminish in number, that's when I began to notice more bowhead whales as opposed to the past (Jacobie Koksiak, Qikiqtarjuaq, IBKS).

…as the bowhead whales are also hunted by killer whales for food. This area [Igloolik area] had no killer whales when there were no bowhead whales. As the population of the bowhead whales increased, so did the killer whales following the bowhead whales (Noah Piugattuk, Igloolik).

This area where we lived before [when I was a child] once had a lot of bowhead whales. After the killer whales started coming here, the bowhead whales did not come around as much any more. …[also] you do not see too many narwhals or beluga whales. To me, it seems like the narwhal have declined ever since that time (Josephee Keenainak, Pangnirtung).

Some Inuit express annoyance at the killer whales because they can pursue bowheads and not be punished, while the Inuit themselves are forbidden to hunt them.

The killer whales are killing off the bowhead whales too, so the animal rights activists should do something about the killer whales too (Anonymous, Pangnirtung).

The Inuit people are very aware of the power of orcas and take great care when they are known to be around. They compare the orcas' habit of hunting in packs to that of the wolf, the only other Arctic predator that cooperates in a group to pull down its prey.

… And the killer whales are the wolves of the sea as we have wolves on the land. All sea mammals fear the killer whale (Gemma Pialaq, Hall Beach).

Inuit explain that, in spite of their greater size, bowheads are very wary of these predators, often having one member of a group acting as a lookout to warn of an approaching threat. Hunters suggest that the bowheads can hear the sound of a group of orcas long before they can be seen in the water.

…once they reached their goal where they will be feeding and mating… they always have a mature bowhead on the lookout, staying a little ways out in the deep water. And once the lookout notices any killer whales he/she would let the other bowhead whales know immediately. …the bowheads would move up right close to the land and stay still. And they would wait for the look-out whale to signal them that the killer whales are clear… then they return to their normal routine – that's the way they are (Ashevak Palituq, Clyde River).

…lookout bowhead whales [called silaaq]… are the leaders of the school of bowhead whales… The leader, once he realizes that there are aarluit (killer whales) around, he takes in a deep breath of air and then sinks to the bottom of the sea and stays there, and watches, until such time that he needs air – usually once the killer whales have passed he would then surface again for air and then go back down to the floor of the ocean and remain there until the killer whales have passed again, going back to wherever they came from, and only then will he surface to let the other whales know that the killer whales have passed. … In Inuktitut [the leader] is called uatsingat – modern day people call it aallaaluk (Nauja Tassugat, Clyde River).

When they [the elder bowhead lookouts] find any danger, they make whistling noises to let the others know… they would start scurrying towards the land to get away from the killer whales and the older bowhead whales would follow behind the younger ones and keep watch to see if they are being followed… when the bowhead whales are in small numbers, the elder bowheads would surround the younger ones, and when the killer whale tries to attack from either side, it would be hit on the ribcage by the bowhead whales, and [the bowheads] can kill by breaking the ribs, that's why they keep watch at a lower level. When the bones start to break the killer whales start getting immobilized after being hit so many times by the bowhead whale, [so] that's how the bowhead whale can kill a killer whale. The elder bowhead whales are the ones that are capable of killing the killer whales, that's why they are the protectors down lower than the younger ones. …that's how they are, and they can kill killer whales, when they are not in great numbers (Nauja Tassugat, Clyde River).

…a bowhead whale was hunted by the killer whales. People said that the fin (flipper) had been taken right off the bowhead whale by the killer whales. As well people said there were lots of northern fulmars which were perhaps eating the blubber of the bowhead whale. People thought that the killer whales were eating the bowhead whale (Jaycopie Audlakiak, Qikiqtarjuaq).

Unlike orcas, bowhead whales are not major predators. The great arviit feed on tiny illirait, small copepods or plankton, also known as "whale food". These small marine invertebrates drift with the ocean currents. During the time of the full moon, these ocean tides and currents are particularly strong, and whales feed very actively on the extra plankton that floats down to them.

There is plenty of food for bowhead whales up here – for example, during strong current tides, it is almost impossible to see the bottom of the sea because of plankton (Koonoo Oyukuluk, Arctic Bay [IBKS]).

In Ivujivik area, the whales like to travel into the current. They also go with the current, but they prefer to face it. Even in winter, they like to be in the current system. It is the other way around with seals. They will go with the current (Peter Audladluk, Ivujivik, Voices from the Bay).

The currents are so important that Peter Matte, of Akulivik, remarked, "There would be no whales if there were no currents". Lucassie Iqaluk, of Inukjuak, expresses the importance of ocean currents to all marine creatures:

"Currents give life to everything that lives in oceans. If there were no currents, the water would be like lake water and the marine mammals and birds would disappear. [...] The currents clean everything... If there were no currents the ice would get very thick, even in deeper water... If the water stopped moving, the animals in the marine world would stop moving, and Inuit would have nothing to eat" (Voices from the Bay).

Bowheads feed on iglirait (copepods)… they feed on them by opening their mouths and waiting, the mouth is full of suqqaq (baleen) and they are just like hair… [in this way] the bowhead collects its food; I guess when they feel that they have collected enough [on the hairy fringes of the baleen] then they close their mouths and eat it. … the tips of the baleen are quite hairy, and they stand up like teeth all the way to the back of the mouth… (Nauja Tassugat, Clyde River [IBKS]).

Even after [a bowhead calf] had grown it still remained with its mother… they feed on small crustaceans and it remained with its mother until it had learned to harvest, then it would gradually leave its mother (Noah Piugattuk, Igloolik).

Whales are social animals, with different roles in the group and even different characters. Hunters speak of older whales that watch out for younger ones, and of different types of whales that tend to be more aggressive and dangerous. Like "ferocious" walruses, aggressive whales can be identified by their actions and breathing patterns.

… the elder bowhead whales would keep watch over the younger ones. … these whales have white spots and they are the real old ones. These old ones are not as active as the younger ones, like us human beings. The adult whales and the younger ones would be grouped up in one spot and the older whales would be down lower keeping watch to see if there were any killer whales around (Nauja Tassugat, Clyde River).

The whales with high and pointy nostrils were called arviqununngittut, literally meaning that they should not be harvested [because they are retaliatory]. While on the other hand bowhead whales with flat nostrils were known as arviqunuqtut, these were the preferred for harvesting as they were not dangerous and they don't retaliate (Pauloosie Angmarlik, Pangnirtung).

I had an occasion to observe a bowhead whale with a pointy/bumpy nostril – this particular bowhead whale actually went after us. We knew it was intending to frighten us and it was going right along side our boat, and we could even observe its lice… For some reason when we went to an area where the ice was just forming, that's when it left us alone (Jacobie Koksiak, Qikiqtarjuaq).

… if its breath is a cracking sound with breaks in between, this is an indication that the bowhead whale is warning [the hunters], as the bowhead whales are capable of striking at the kayaks or umiat [large skin boats]. The hunters were able to detect the mood of the bowhead whale by the way it was breathing (Lypa Pitsiulak, Pangnirtung).