Bowhead Migration Under the Ice

In 1977, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on subsistence hunting of bowhead whales. Their decision was based on results of NOAA’s whale census that there were fewer than 1000 bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock; and in that year 111 whale strikes were reported. The moratorium led to the establishment of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) and a quota system monitored by the U.S. government and the IWC. In 1981, the bowhead census project was transferred from NOAA to the AEWC and in 1982 to the NSB Department of Wildlife Management (at that time, the department was named the Environmental Protection Office or EPO).

The IWC and NOAA thought at the time that the migration of bowhead whales stopped when the leads in the sea ice closed. Senior whaling captains, including Harry Brower, Sr., talked to the NSB biologists about their census efforts.

Quote by Harry Brower, Sr., in Albert, 2001:

There are a lot of bowheads out there that the scientists aren’t counting. Many are out in the ice and therefore are not seen when they pass by Barrow. As a result of poor counting the scientific community helps put these unfair quotas upon us.

Harry Brower, Sr., was one of the senior whaling captains that advised the NSB biologists. (Photo credit: Naval Arctic Research Laboratory)

This drawing shows how a bowhead whale breaks the ice with the top of its skull in order to access air for breathing. Drawing by Craig George © 1986 Breathing hole in refrozen lead created and used by bowhead whales, photographed in 1985 near Barrow. Photo by Craig George

The elders had been telling scientists for years that their estimates were inaccurate and that there were more whales than were being reported. This information led to modifications in the bowhead research program, including using acoustics to estimate the proportion of whales that were migrating under the ice beyond visual sighting distance from the observation perch. Subsequently, whales were in fact tracked acoustically under the sea ice, some locations as far as 20 km from the ice edge, confirming the elders’ observations. The IWC agreed that the estimates should allow corrections for periods of closed leads and whales beyond viewing distance. Due to these modifications, the estimates essentially doubled and the quota was increased accordingly. The most recent estimate (2004) of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowhead whales is about 12,000 with a 3.5% annual rate of increase.

Bowhead whale surfacing in an open lead (or a crack in sea ice). Photo: Craig George Glen Taalak, Aggie Frankson, and Geoff Carroll counting whales at the perch in 1984. Photo: Craig George


Ice Trail Maps

Ice trail maps have been continued to be produced and used. High-tech maps are now being produced with the help of differential GPS technology. Click on the year for copies of the 2007, the 2010, the 2011 and the 2012 ice trail maps produced by Matt Druckenmiller (UAF), Craig George (NSB-DWM) and Lewis Brower (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium). A 2014 map was produced by Oliver Dammann (UAF), Matt Druckenmiller (UAF), Michael Donovan (UIC Umiaq), and Craig George (NSB-DWM).

Consultation with TEK experts is important when choosing sites for the perch. Senior whaling captain, Warren Matumeak, provided information on sea ice conditions and safety for the whale census project in 2001


Abstract: Shorefast ice, present along Alaska’s Arctic coastline from late fall through early summer, provides a platform for subsistence hunting by coastal indigenous communities. At Barrow, Alaska, Inupiat hunters build trails each spring across the shorefast ice to connect the community to the adjacent lead where they hunt migrating bowhead whales. Building on efforts initiated by Alaska’s North Slope Borough and in collaboration with the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, a systematic ice trail mapping and surveying project was developed in spring 2008. Using electromagnetic induction sounding, ice thickness surveys were completed along trails just prior to whaling. Semi directed interviews with hunters addressed the impact of ice conditions on the hunt, choice of trail and hunting locations, and safety concerns. Four years of results (20082011) have shown that (1) tracking of local ice conditions along ice trails reveals the interannual variability of the shorefast ice thickness distribution, (2) documenting trail building and hunting strategies provides a baseline for how the community copes with variability, and (3) developing information resources for the community facilitates interaction with hunters and maintains project relevance to environmental challenges facing the community.

  • Warren Matumeak made many contributions to the Department of Wildlife Management, including the information on sea ice conditions. Read this Tribute to Warren Matumeak written by Craig George after Warren’s passing in December of 2010.

Bowhead Migration Timing

Based on earlier research, it was thought by western science that in the fall bowhead whales typically arrived near Barrow in September, migrating west from the Canadian waters of the Beaufort Sea. Whalers told the biologists that some bowhead whales did not complete the migration to the east, but spent the summer near Barrow. These observations have been corroborated by aerial surveys and ship surveys.

Hunters talked about the spring bowhead migration occurring in pulses, or “three schools” of whales migrating past Barrow in the spring. This TEK was confirmed by the census, with aerial surveys and photogrammetry, which allowed the scientists to separate the three groups by size and sex. Roughly, the first group to migrate in the spring is mostly sub-adults, then the mid-sized whales, followed by the third group of mainly the mature females with young. Adult whales are sprinkled throughout the migration but for the most part, sub-adult whales come early.

Four bowhead whales feeding, echelon style, north of Barrow in August of 2002. Photo: Miriam and Rubin Aiken


  • More information on bowhead movements.
  • Moore, S.E. 1992. Summer records of bowhead whales in the northeastern Chukchi Sea. Arctic 45(4):398-400.
  • Angliss, R. P., Hobbs R. C., DeMaster, D.P. 1995. Determination of the sample size necessary to detect changes in length frequency distributions from a recovering population of bowhead whales. Report to the International Whaling Commission 45:331-334.
  • Koski, W.R. and G.W. Miller. 2004. Habitat use by different size classes of bowhead whales in the central Beaufort Sea during late summer and autumn. Presented to the 56th International Whaling Commission. SC/56/BRG28.

Bowhead Migration Near St. Lawrence Island

During spring migration, Yupik whalers told biologists that bowhead whales migrate mainly west of St. Lawrence Island. Whaling captains worked with NSB biologists and drew maps showing the migration route. Radio tracks and aerial surveys that were conducted in this area indicate that very few whales migrate east of St. Lawrence Island, confirming the TEK from the whalers.

Whalers from St. Lawrence Island that provided TEK on bowhead whales in that area. Photo: Craig George Map of St. Lawrence Island that was used during the collection of TEK of bowhead whales in that area


Banner photo credit: Kate Stafford

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