Whales navigate Northwest Passage

21 September 2011

Bowhead whales have navigated the Northwest Passage for what may be the first time in almost 10,000 years, scientists have revealed in Biology Letters.

Researchers used satellite tracking to monitor the movements of the whales to discover that in 2010 they travelled between the Atlantic and Pacific seas via the famously ice-bound passage.  Bones found on beaches in the region suggest that the last time the whales occupied this area was around 10,000 years ago.

While Bowheads are adept at moving through ice-bound Arctic seas, it was previously thought that the sea ice in the Northwest Passage was too impenetrable even for these Arctic specialists.  However, the new observations show Bowheads travelling through the passage in both directions, suggesting that the rapidly diminishing Arctic sea ice has allowed them to pass from one ocean to another.

The findings have huge implications for the ecology of marine life in the region, with the authors stating that their findings “are perhaps an early sign that other marine organisms have begun exchanges between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans across the Arctic.  Some of these exchanges may be harder to detect than bowhead whales, but the ecological impacts could be more significant should the ice-free Arctic become a dispersion corridor between the two oceans.”

Read the full paper for free on the Biology Letters webpage.