A question we commonly receive from whale watch passengers is: How long do whales live? The quick answer is that we don’t really know, but there are some studies showing that whales may live much longer than we might expect.
The longest-living whale is thought to be the bowhead whale. The bowhead is generally an Arctic species, but individuals have occasionally ventured into the Gulf of Maine. It is thought that bowheads can live over 200 years (read more here). This information was gathered from a couple different sources. One is a study of changes in aspartic acid in a whale’s eye lens, which can estimate age. The other is the presence of old harpoon tips in several different bowhead whales killed over the last 10 years. Based on archaeological evidence, the whales had carried those harpoon tips for more than 100 years.
What about our local whales? A Japanese study estimated that fin whales can live over 100 years, and we know there are humpbacks swimming in the Gulf of Maine that are over 40, and likely much older.
Our photo-identification research can shed some light on whale longevity. The longer we document whales of known birth year, the more information we can gain about how long these whales live, the age at first reproduction, how frequently they reproduce, and what areas of the Gulf of Maine they frequent at different life stages.