The well-known Dutch polar explorer and archaeologist Louwrens Hacquebord, together with other scientists, has been able to estimate that before the start of the whale hunt around Spitsbergen and Greenland, around 50,000 Icewhales must have lived there. Taking the enormous weight of a single whale into account, this population corresponds to a biomass equal to 880,000 elephants or ten million cows. The food cycle in the Arctic must have been completely different than it is today.
Whale hunting started in the coastal areas. The wooden ships of that time could easily drop anchor in a fjord and wait for the Icewhales to come to them. The bulky heavy animals could be hunted much more easily than other, faster, whale species. Hunting for Icewhales had another advantage as after they had been harnassed, they floated due their thick layer of fat. Terefore, they could easily be dragged to the tear furnaces on the beach by just a few rowing boats strained in front of the dead animal. After most of the Icewhales had been caught along the coast, whaling moved more towards the edge of the pack ice in the open sea. The whales were now processed on board and the settlements with tear-off farms on shore were abandoned.
The Netherlands has dominated the whaling industry around Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen for decades. In some years over 200 Dutch whale ships traveled to the Arctic ice. This history still echoes in the countless Dutch geographical names in the Arctic. In addition to Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen you also have Amsterdam Island, the Hindelopenstraat, the Liefdeford and Uutkiek.
At the end of the commercial whale hunting in the mid-20th century, the population of Icewhales was on the brink of extinction. Recenty, Icewhales are starting to be observed more often around Spitsbergen. Especially notable are two observations of groups of 80 to 100 animals, done from the Dutch cruise ship Plancius in June 2015 and again in 2018 at almost the same location which was at the edge of the ice between Spitsbergen and Greenland. Of course, we do not know whether the increased number of sightings actually represents an increase in the number of animals, or whether the animals simply are more visible because of the shifting ice line and the increased number of cruise ships around.