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A glimpse into whaling history

AT THE END of May a 50-ton bowhead whale was killed by Alaskan Eskimos as part of their traditional subsistence whale hunt. Upon cutting into the whale, the Eskimos made a startling discovery: embedded in one of its bones was the tip of a 19th -century bomb lance. This amazing find has captured the public's imagination because it not only proves the whale's astonishing age, but also offers a window into America's fascinating whaling past.

Judging by the patented design of the lance and other clues, John Bockstoce, adjunct curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and his colleagues estimate that the whale was shot with the bazooka-like weapon between 1885 and 1895, making this leviathan at least 112 to 122 years old. How many years longer the whale lived is unknown, but whatever the number, it was an ancient whale. And a lucky one -- unlike most of its peers, this bowhead survived.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the bowheads were on a crash course toward extinction, courtesy of the American whaling fleet. Ever since 1848, when Sag Harbor captain Thomas Welcome Roys and his crew became the first commercial whalemen to kill a bowhead in the Arctic Ocean, American whaleships headed north each summer to take advantage of this new profit center, sometimes killing as many as 1,000 whales in a season.

In the early years of the fishery, bowheads -- which can reach 65 feet in length and weigh more than 100 tons -- were doubly valuable to whalemen. The whales' exceptionally thick layer of blubber produced enormous quantities of oil used for lighting and lubrication; and the pliable baleen in their mouths, which whalemen called whalebone, put the hoop in hooped skirts and gave form to stomach-tightening corsets.

Then, "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake's discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, and the ensuing petroleum revolution, dealt a crippling blow to the whale oil industry. No longer were whales needed to light the world and grease the gears of industry. But this cataclysmic market shift provided only a partial reprieve for the bowheads. Due to the vagaries of fashion, baleen was still a prize worth pursuing.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the hourglass figure made a resplendent, if rather painful, comeback. Now that the trendsetters of the age were telling women that impossibly pinched waists and uplifted bosoms were the in thing, demand for baleen corset stays skyrocketed. This generated a gold rush of sorts in the Arctic, when a mini-armada of whaleships headed north in search of bowheads, which had the longest and most valuable baleen of all whales, with strips reaching 14 feet.

In 1870 baleen fetched 85 cents per pound; a decade later it had risen to $2. Then in 1891 it shot up to $5.38 per pound, and in 1904 it reached an all-time high of $5.80. As The New York Times reported in 1889, baleen was "becoming so rare and costly that the old whalemen are being drawn away from their firesides once more in the hope of making big money quickly in taking it. A quantity of bone that would not fill an ox-cart was sold last week for $1,800."

Whaling voyages were now being dubbed whalebone cruises, and with a large bowhead capable of providing upward of 3,000 pounds of baleen, the profits for a really successful cruise were simply astounding.

It was in the midst of this fashion-induced melee that the bowhead whale we have all been reading about was shot with the bomb lance, the tip of which has remained hidden deep inside its flesh for more than a century. Had the bomb lance's time-delay fuse detonated, as it was designed to do, the whale would have been killed. But, fortunately for the whale, the lance was a dud. And that is fortunate for us as well, because we have been given an unexpected and intriguing glimpse of the whale's history, and our own.

Eric Jay Dolin is author of "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America." He lives in Marblehead.