National Geographic : 1991 Jul
TAKING A BREATHER from tumultuous sexual activity underwater, a pair of rare, 50-foot-long bowhead whales surface in Isabella Bay on Baffin Island's east coast. This remote fjord is the only place left in the eastern Arctic where bowheads congregate in great numbers. Before two centuries of whaling began in the early 1700s, bowheads numbered an estimated 11,000 in the Baffin Bay region. Today fewer than 500 remain there. After long marveling at sol itary bowheads floating along the floe edge of Admiralty Inlet, I was eager to visit Isabella Bay. My guide was Kerry Finley, a marine mammal biologist who has been studying the whales since 1983. Kerry, observing the endangered bowhead with the help of Inuit from nearby Clyde River, has found that as many as 70 whales gather inside the bay when the ice goes out in August. For them it's a playground unfrequent ed by predatory killer whales. In groups of four or five, the whales engage in day-long rounds of copulation. With Kerry on hand in a kayak, a female lifts a six foot-long flipper and lazily slaps the water (left). As a possible gesture of prowess, a male indulges in violent tail lashing (right). A lowered hydrophone picks up screams, roars, and wild trumpeting. "The sounds were so loud, they vibrated my kayak," Kerry said. The confines of Isabella Bay also serve the whales as a grooming area where they can rub off molting skin on the shallow bottom. Most exciting for Kerry: He discovered that bowheads dive more than 700 feet into glacial troughs to gorge on descending copepods. Cautiously entering the water with these giants, I managed to make the first ever underwater photograph of a bowhead (following pages). For all its scars and scaly skin, it's one of the most impressive creatures I've seen.