There are still blank areas on the map of the earth. Such a blank area is the white Arctic sea-ice between Greenland and Spitsbergen. This is the remote area in which one of the most intriguing wildlife species of the world lives: the Bowhead Whale or Greenland Right Whale, Balaena mysticetus. We call it the Icewhale because it is not Greenland but the sea-ice that defines its distinctive character. Now that the Arctic ice is melting, the Icewhale not only faces the reduction of its critical habitat, but also the increase of shipping and seismic exploration. We need to know more about Icewhales in order to mitigate the challenges that they will face.
Icewhales are huge baleen whales with thick rounded bodies, record large flukes, conspicuous black-spotted white chins and the biggest mouths in the world. These massive whales can weigh up to 100.000 kg, the second largest animal species next to the Blue Whale. They can reach lifespans of over two hundred years which makes them the longest-living mammals on the planet. Year-round bound to the sea-ice, the Icewhale is the only large whale endemic to the Arctic.
Recordings with a fixed hydrophone at a location high up north in the Arctic show Icewhales displaying a great diversity of complex whale songs in the middle of the dark polar winter, year after year. It seems that Icewhales gather in open leads within dense sea-ice. The sophisticated whale songs presumably play a role in courtship and mating behaviour as a kind of singer-songwriter contest. Until now, hardly anything is known about Icewhale reproduction.
Before Arctic whaling commenced, Icewhales were found in immense numbers along the entire coast of Spitsbergen. The species has been hunted extensively for their fat and baleens most notably by the Netherlands.
Icewhales have a near-circumpolar distribution around the ice shield covering the Arctic Ocean. After industrial whaling stopped mid-20th century the species was marked on the Red List as ‘very rare’. The current IUCN-status of the species is ‘least concern’ because global population size increased. However, two of four recognized populations, Spitsbergen and Okhotsk, are still listed as ‘endangered’. Notwithstanding the species overall status ‘least concern’, the current estimated number of Icewhales is a faint reflection of pre-whaling population sizes, while new threats arise.
We are preparing a series of unique scientific expeditions, deep into the sea-ice during the darkness of the polar winter, where Icewhales are supposed to reside, mate and reproduce. This way we can learn about the life of the Icewhales and their interactions with the environment. In doing so, we turn the Icewhale from a scarcely known species into a well-known Icon of the Arctic, a figurehead of sustainable conservation and development.
Backed by a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and in cooperation with Delft University of Technology, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Conoship Naval Architects, we produced a feasibility study and basic design of MARVEL. This Modular Arctic Research Vessel is especially designed and equipped to investigate the hardly accessible drift-ice zone and to safely withstand the dynamic pressures of drifting ice under harsh weather conditions. This strong and compact vessel will operate autonomously during four to five months throughout the polar winter night, with a limited crew of scientists, engineers and navigators. The crew operates like astronauts in a space station: Icenauts who will be supported 24/7 by a Ground Control Station.
MARVEL accommodates up to four hi-cube 20 ft containers that serve as research laboratories for various scientific disciplines.
The principal methods to access the environment above and under the ice cover are drones and the moonpool. Aerial and underwater drones are used for sampling and observations and to set out instruments for acoustical recordings. The moonpool offers access from the sheltered interior of the vessel to the underwater environment and the underside of the sea-ice. Scientists can lower a wide variety of sampling, measuring and observation instruments through the moonpool, as well as scuba divers and submersible robotics.