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Cetacean Seniors

Whales that give new meaning to longevity

5:12pm, February 3, 2004

Like a stream of massive torpedoes, thousands of blubbery dynamos are making a southwest migration through the icy Arctic Ocean. They're bowhead whales heading toward winter haunts in the Bering Sea, just north of the Aleutian Islands.

Along the way, Inupiat Eskimos in Alaska will legally harvest several of these endangered mammals—30-to-60-foot-long behemoths that sometimes tip the scales at 50 tons or more.

Having hunted these whales for centuries, the Inupiat are keen observers of the bowhead (Balaena mysticetus). Their tales recall whales that hunters had recognized by distinctive scars. In some cases, several generations of storytellers described encountering the same whale, leading to speculation that bowheads might live some 60 years.

Studies now suggest that these whales can actually outlive people—perhaps by a century.

Ancient points

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