Bowhead whale and calf are seen in the Arctic. (Courtesy of Corey Accardo/NOAA)

How did Arctic researchers date the age of massive bowhead whales? They measured chemical changes in the eye lenses of whales that had been hunted legally. Made up of dozens of layers of protein, the lens of a whale’s eye is composed of concentric protein spheres, with the oldest rings at the center.

But this science is not quite exact. Sometimes the most obvious way to determine how old these whales are is the most old-fashioned: examining what’s inside them.

“We found stone weapons from the 1800s in their blubber,” George said, referencing pieces of weaponry found in “divots in their blubber.”

“We folded . . . down” indentations in the whale’s skin tissue “and saw stone endpoints,” he added. “You can’t help but go ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

The International Whaling Commission and the U.S. government allow aboriginal peoples to hunt the animals for food, though not commercially. After a 2007 hunt, a whaling captain in Barrow found a fragment of a “bomb lance” — used to hunt whales in the Arctic for almost 150 years, it’s a harpoon infused with gunpowder that explodes on contact — in a
45-foot bowhead. These weapons were manufactured between 1879 and 1885, which suggests that the animal from which the fragment was recovered was among the oldest bowheads whose age has been established.