Ancient exploding harpoon found

Published: Sunday 15 July 2007

-- A fragment of an exploding harpoon used by whalers in the 1800s has been found in a whale caught off Alaska, suggesting that the animal could be nearly 130 years old.

The find has given researchers a rare insight into the precise age of the whale, as till now a whale's age is approximated only by examining amino acids in its eye lenses.

Local government officials say that Alaska's Inupiat people discovered the 9-centimetre long arrow-shaped fragment when they killed the 50-tonne bowhead whale in May. The fragment was embedded in the whale's blubber near its shoulder blade. Inupiat people had killed the whale during their traditional subsistence hunt.

The fragment is part of a 'bomb lance' manufactured around 1880, say scientists in Alaska who are now verifying the whale's age by examining its eye lens. Whalers from New Bedford in Massachusetts, formerly a major whaling centre, had probably shot at the bowhead whale from a heavy shoulder gun around 1890, they say. The whale, however, survived the hunt and has since been swimming around with the fragment. The fragment will now be displayed at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska.

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