Blue Whale

Even though there are some recently discovered dinosaurs that may have been longer, for sheer bulk the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest and heaviest animal ever to have lived on Earth. The largest specimens were over 100 feet long, and weighed 150 tons (300,000 pounds), but the average blue whales are between 75 and 80 feet long. After a gestation period of a year, the newborn blue whale is 24 feet long, and weighs between 2.5 and 3 tons. This makes a newborn blue whale larger than almost all living adult vertebrates, except for other whales, some sharks, and such terrestrial animals as elephants and rhinoceroses. The calf is fed on its mother's milk, which is so rich in fat that the neonate puts on some 200 pounds a day—8.33 pounds an hour—for the first six months of its life. The yearling blue whale is weaned when it is approximately 50 feet long.

As with other rorquals (i.e., whales of the Balaenopteridae family), adult females are larger than males. For the most part, blue whales are slate- or grayish-blue in color, splashed with lighter spots, which are concentrated most heavily on the back and shoulders and appear only rarely on the head, flippers, or flukes. The underside of a blue whale is the same color as the dorsal surface, not lighter as in most other bal-aenopterids. In the northern North Pacific and the Antarctic, blue whales often acquire a patina of yellowish diatoms on the underside, which accounts for their occasional name of "sulphur-bottom." The ventral grooves reach the navel and number between 55 and 70. The baleen of a blue whale is black, and there are some 300-400 plates on each side of the upper jaw. At the front of the mouth, the plates are about 20 inches (50 cm) long, and at the rear they are about 40 inches (100 cm) long. The skull is less sharply pointed than that of any other rorqual, and its wide, flat upper jaw is diagnostic and responsible for some of its early names—"flathead" and "broad-nosed whale." The flippers are narrow and pointed, and the dorsal fin is very small, and located so far back on the caudal peduncle that it is not visible at the surface until most of the animal's back has rolled by. The blow of the blue whale is vertical, and on a still day can reach as high as 15 m (50 feet). Some workers have recognized a "pygmy" species (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) but others believe that this population, found in the Subantarctic Indian Ocean, is merely a geographical variation.

Blue whales make three or four shallow dives, followed by a deeper one, where the flukes are raised out of the water. They are selective feeders, preferring shrimplike creatures known as euphausiids, which they ingest by the millions. It has been estimated that a feeding blue whale requires 3 million calories a day, which works out to 4 tons of krill, or about 40 million krill every day during the feeding season. (The feeding season only lasts four months; however, for the other eight months of every year, the whale fasts.) They take in and expel huge mouthfuls of water, trapping the food items in the fringes of their baleen plates and then swallowing them. During their feeding dives, blue whales take so much water into their mouths that their throats are grotesquely distended, increasing their diameter two or three times. Baleen whales do not echolocate, but they do vocalize. The calls of adult blue whales are extremely loud, perhaps the loudest sounds made by any animal. These sounds carry farther than any other animal sounds, and may be detected over a thousand miles away. Blue whale sounds are narrow-band, low-frequency moans that lie below the range of human hearing.

During the summer months, blue whales of the eastern North Pacific are found in the Gulf of Alaska, along the southern side of the Aleutian Islands, near the Kuril Islands and off Kamchatka. They have also been reported off the Chukotka Peninsula, but rarely from the Bering Sea. The North Atlantic populations range as far north as Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen Land, and commonly around Iceland. They have been seen on the west side of Greenland (the Davis Strait) and also in Baffin Bay. The Aleuts know the blue whale as umgulik, the Chukchi as akhokhrinkh, the Greenland Inuit as tunnolik, and the aborigines of the Chukotska Peninsula as takyshkok.

The blue whales found in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic are, on average, somewhat smaller than those of the Southern Ocean, but otherwise there is no difference between them, and there is no exchange of populations between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Aboriginal and early commercial whalers rarely hunted blue whales because the whales were too large and powerful, but the introduction of heavy artillery made the hunting of blue whales all too possible. In 1904, after decimating the blue whales of the North Atlantic, Norwegian whalers headed south to the Antarctic, where they encountered an unprecedented abundance of blue and fin whales, there to feed on the concentrations of krill in the antipodean summer. The Norwegians and British first established shore whaling stations, mostly on the island of South Georgia, but with the invention of the stern slipway in 1925, the whales could be processed at sea, and the numbers of whales killed increased exponentially. In the 1930-1931 Antarctic season, 29,410 blue whales were killed. In the 1930s, Norwegian and British whalers introduced the Blue Whale Unit (BWU), which meant that one blue whale was the equivalent of two fins, two and a half humpbacks, or six sei whales. It required the same effort to kill a blue whale as a fin whale, but you got twice the credit, which meant of course that blue whales, even though declining in numbers, were consistently being targeted. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission banned all blue whale hunting. As a result, they are fully protected around the world, but the total world population of around 5000 animals does not appear to be increasing.

Richard Ellis

See also Whaling, Historical Further Reading

Ellis R., The Book of Whales, New York: Knopf, 1980

-, Men and Whales, New York: Knopf, 1991

Hershkovitz, P., "Catalog of living whales." United States

National Museum Bulletin, 246 (1966): 1-259 Mowat, F., Sea of Slaughter, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1984 Sears, R., "Blue whales." In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, edited by W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig & J.G.M. Thewissen, London and San Diego: Academic Press, 2002 Small, G.L., The Blue Whale, New York: Columbia University Press, 1971

Yochem, P.K. & S. Leatherwood, "Blue whale Balaenoptera musculus (Linnaeus 1758)." In Handbook of Marine Mammals, Volume 3, The Sirenians and Baleen Whales, edited by S.H. Ridgway and R. Harrison, San Diego: Academic Press, 1985


Franz Boas has earned the standing as one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of anthropology. He is known in part for his geographical and anthropological work in the Canadian Arctic, whereby he pioneered the modern anthropological practice of fieldwork. Although born in northwestern Germany, he emigrated to the United States to escape growing anti-Semitism in the years following his Arctic research in 1883-1884. Boas became the first anthropology professor of Columbia University in New York in 1899 after publishing The Central Eskimo in 1888, and engaged in further fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest, leading to a voluminous and distinguished publication career.

Boas can be credited with helping to invent the modern notions of culture and cultural relativism; helping to launch Arctic anthropology; stressing fieldwork as a core aspect of anthropological research; training the founding generation of American anthropologists; and making significant contributions to a variety of fields, including physical anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, and geography (particularly in the Arctic).

Boas conducted his earliest fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic from 1883 to 1884. Although he traveled to Cumberland Sound (an inlet of Davis Strait in the Northwest Territories) as a geographer interested in recording Inuit place-names, mapping the region, and traveling the overland route westward to Foxe Basin, his experiences there led him to change his vocation from geography to anthropology. Ludger Müller-Wille has noted in his introduction to the published version of the journals of Boas from the journey that "this, the first and only research trip that Boas spent among the Inuit, became personally and scientifically a key experience for him and ultimately one of special significance for the development of anthropology" (Müller-Wille, 1998: 3).

Boas chose to travel to Cumberland Sound because no one had yet traveled the route from the sound to Foxe Basin, and exploring uncharted territory was a requirement for a geography doctorate in Germany at the time. His choice was in part prompted by the First International Polar Year in 1882-1883, which had demonstrated strong German participation in Cumberland Sound as well as an established structure of whaling stations. The station at Kekerten Island served as Boas's base in the Arctic. Cumberland Sound seemed therefore to be a propitious location. The participation of his assistant, Wilhelm Weike, significantly facilitated Boas's Arctic fieldwork. Boas and Weike traveled in the summer of 1883 on the Germania, which under the sponsorship of the German Polar Commission had set off for Cumberland Sound with the purpose of returning with German scientists who had spent the previous year there.

Although Boas did not succeed in making the trip to Foxe Basin, he traveled extensively around the Sound, up along the north coast of Baffin Island, and in the western interior as far as Nettilling Lake. The maps Boas ultimately produced were superior to those in use at the time (the British admiralty charts), and he subsequently authored a number of geographically oriented texts. However, the study of the people generated the most enthusiasm for both Boas and, ultimately, his audience. In the journal he kept for his fiancée, he famously noted, "As you see, my Marie, I am now truly just like an Eskimo; I live like them, hunt with them, and count myself among the men of Anarnitung" (quoted in Muller-Wille, p. 182). Here Boas was referencing the Austro-Hungarian adventurer and author Henry Wenzel Klutschak, who had traveled in the region to the west of Hudson Bay as part of the Frederick Schwatka expedition in search of Sir John Franklin's lost ship during the years 1778-1779, surviving by living among the Inuit. Klutschak's riveting account of his years had been published in Germany in 1881. In Boas's journals he also observed on October 3, 1883, after only two months, that "Eskimos are far from uncivilized people" (quoted in

Müller-Wille, p. 110), the beginning, as Müller-Wille and others have noted, of the notion of cultural relativism. The concept of cultural relativism implies attempting to understand different cultures without using evaluative criteria that stem from the observing culture; by moving away from a notion that Inuit were savages and understanding that Inuit had their own forms of "civilization." Boas began to break with the prevailing mode of scholarship that invoked ethnocentric judgments to characterize and describe culture prior to his own.

As a result, upon his return to Europe and visit to America, Boas began primarily engaging audiences with his ethnographic rather than geographical material. The book-length monograph he ultimately produced (The Central Eskimo) was not a geography text, but in a sense a hybrid text that incorporated the nascent field of anthropology that would hence become a classic in that field and within the study of Inuit culture. Boas, in this text, achieved the application of science and scientific models to the study of culture, sharply distinguishing it from the amateur ethnography tradition (to which Klutschak's account, for example, belongs) by being strictly analytical in applying categories and attempting a complete description of culture. The Central Eskimo contains an extensive description of the geographical distribution of Inuit, emphasizes material culture and activities, but devotes about one third of its material to categories such as social and religious life, tales and traditions, and science and the arts, or what would presently be termed cultural anthropology.

Today the environmental determinism found in Boas's approach would likely garner less sympathy (although that tradition of thought has remained persistent in Arctic studies), and the static view of culture as untouched by temporality and as a "pure" totality would be challenged by most contemporary cultural anthropologists. Nevertheless The Central Eskimo remains a remarkable achievement for its implicit challenge to the ethnocentric model of cultural hierarchy implied by cultural evolution that dominated 19th-century letters. Boas's pioneer work also put Inuit culture squarely at the center of the anthropological enterprise and retained a strong influence on Arctic anthropology.

Boas went on to a very distinguished career at Columbia University in New York, serving terms as president of the American Anthropological Society and the New York Academic of Sciences. He authored many other books and hundreds of articles, including Primitive Art (1927), Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), and Race, Language and Culture (1940). Among his most influential books, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) demonstrated that there was no such thing as a superior race, thereby establishing Boas as an outspoken thinker within the field of physical anthropology and a prescient scholar of race and culture theories.

His later fieldwork was among First Nations on the Pacific Northwest coast, though often the more general publications drew extensively on his Arctic experience. Boas was also active in museum presentations of culture, particularly as curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, in the years 1901-1905. His students included Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, Paul Radin, and later Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, among others, many of whom are today considered leaders in the field of American anthropology in the first half of the 20th century.

Boas maintained a concern for the Arctic throughout his career, although he only spent the one year of field-work there. As late at the mid-1930s, Boas actively debated with Diamond Jenness whether Inuit should be classified as Indians. Boas's view that Inuit should be seen as another group of aboriginal peoples—in contrast with Jenness's opinion that Inuit were so distinct they should be legally categorized as an entirely different people—won recognition in the Supreme Court of Canada case re: Eskimos in 1939. Boas's perspective helped ensure that Inuit gained constitutional protection as aboriginal peoples who held aboriginal rights. Although in many respects later anthropologists would challenge much in Boas's approach, clearly in his time he presented a powerful, progressive intellectual force against racism and ethnocentrism. It is perhaps a useful reminder of the passions inspired by his work to recall that the Nazi regime in Germany sponsored the burning of his books. The ancestors of the community of Pangnirtung in contemporary Cumberland Sound, through the work of Boas, may be said to have played a significant role in the history of ideas in the 20th century. That is, it is not only as the subjects of his research, but as people who shared ideas with him and whose respect for him no doubt helped influence the respect he offered back, that Inuit played a strong role "between the lines" in the nascent doctrine of cultural relativism. Boas deserves enormous credit for listening carefully, translating well, and adding his singular perspective to the material and ideas he gathered.

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