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Why Do Whales Molt?

May 05, 2021

There has been some really interesting new research into why whales molt (also spelt moult), the exfoliating of their skin during the summer. Little of this behaviour is truly understood but studies are developing better answers for why whales, that spend time in polar regions, need to shed their skin.

Arctic Kingdom trips on Baffin Island often see bowhead whales bobbing in shallow water and spot baby narwhal and this begs the question why do they travel so far?

The theory has been “feed in the cold, breed in the warm” but we may be learning a more important reason why these circumpolar whales seek warm water in the summer.

Join us as we delve into what molting is and why whales do it.


What is Molting?

Easily put, molting is the process whales go through to exfoliate their skin to a fresher layer. In the summertime you can find whales bobbing in shallow waters and rubbing gently against rocks to shake off the bacteria and dead skin.

Now, scientists are starting to understand why whales like bowhead and narwhal need to do this process and why there is such a buildup. In order to survive in the frigid Arctic waters the whales can divert blood flow away from their skin to keep the rest of their body water. This means that it is harder to shed the skin and a buildup of bacteria forms.

Therefore, by travelling to warmer waters during the summer they can send the blood back to their skin to produce a healthier layer of skin. Considering many whales give birth before the summer this indicates the reason for migrating might actually be to molt.

Where Do Arctic Whales Molt?

Some whales will travel incredible distances to spend the summer among the Arctic archelogies like Baffin Island. And some stay in the Arctic all year, like bowhead and narwhal, but return to the same shallow bays and warm water estuaries to spend the summer.

They need to shake off the old layer, often with “rock-nosing” where they gently rub against smooth rocks in shallow bays. If you’re lucky on a whale tour of Baffin Island, you just might water these beautiful creatures gather in large groups and splash around like kids in a pool.


Arctic Kingdom is Famous!

One of Arctic Kingdom’s boat tours had the incredible luck of discovering a new molting area on our Polar Bears & Glaciers of Baffin Island Safari. They watched what looked like a large group of bowhead whales in a courtship, until they noticed the rubbing behaviours.

This behaviour is rarely every documented and was so monumental that Arctic Kingdom and this event is now on Wikipedia for the subject bowhead whales.

Although bowhead whales are a key feature of our summer safari, it is not a guarantee that you’ll see bowhead whales do this epic dance in the shallow waters. But considering our trips go to those areas, you never know when an Arctic Kingdom safari might see another spectacular event like before.


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Are you still curious about the many wonders of the Arctic or looking for more interesting content then explore more blogs here!

By: Mat Whitelaw