The first bowhead whale harvested this season by Inupiat hunters in Kaktovik yielded a big surprise -- broken-down pieces of an old projectile left over from the days of commercial whaling, buried in the whale's tail.
A whaling crew captained by Freddie Aishanna got the bowhead, which measured slightly over 42 feet, and brought it to the beach on Sunday, said Flora Rexford, a teacher in the eastern North Slope village.
The commercial projectile was discovered by crew member Sheldon Brower, who started what was expected to be the usual butchering process, Rexford said.
"They had just celebrated, standing on the whale. Then they washed the whale. Then he started cutting and he hit metal," Rexford said.
The projectile, a bomb of the type used decades ago by commercial hunters, was found in the whale's tail, Rexford said. It was in pieces, but all the fragments were collected from the animal's body, she said.
Another discovery once the butchering began -- odd-looking growths in the whale's body tissue, she said. "It had a lot of strange things in it that we hadn't seen before," she said. The meat had a bad smell, especially around the tail section where the projectile was found, she said.
The whale meat will not be eaten, Rexford said. "We don't want to serve bad food to anybody," she said.
Instead, the whale and its contents are being analyzed by biologists.
Craig George, senior wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management, said the projectile appears to date from about 40 to 50 years ago, but the age is not yet confirmed.
It is not the first time that pieces of old weapons have been found in North Slope bowhead whales.
The latest discovery is not quite as dramatic as one made in 2007, George said, when a whale harvested by a Barrow crew turned out to be carrying a projectile that had a patent date of 1879.
That discovery, along with other discoveries of stone and ivory weapon fragments, suggests that bowhead whales can have extremely long lives, George and a coauthor from the New Bedford Whaling Museum concluded in a paper published in 2008 in the journal Polar Biology. It is likely that the projectile found in 2007 was used shortly after it was patented, George's analysis said.
Bowhead whales usually reach maturity at 20 but can live to be about 100 years old, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The animal's full lifespan remains unknown, according to NOAA.
The Kaktovik whale harvested earlier this week was unusual for another reason, Rexford said -- it was struck by the village's first female harpooner.