Bowhead Whale Facts

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is a baleen whale and belongs to the group commonly known as Cetacea which includes all species of whale, dolphin and porpoise.

Bowheads are found swimming in the upper northern hemisphere in and around arctic waters.

They are believed to be the longest living mammal in existence today and one of the heaviest mammals alive, second the blue whale.

These whales have the thickest blubber out of all of the whale species measuring between 17-19 inches thick to help it maintain body heat in arctic/sub arctic waters and have a head that measures between 30% – 40% of its entire body length, which can help the whale break through large amounts of ice.

Physical Characteristics

Bowhead whales have a large skulls and bow-shaped jaws which on average is about 30% – 40% percent of the length of its entire body.

They have dark grayish - black colored skin and a white spot on their lower snout.

These whales also have short, narrow flippers and lack a dorsal.

The bowhead whale can grow to a length of 66 ft. and weigh as much as 100 tons when fully grown.


Bowheads are filter feeders and hunt for their food by swimming towards it with their mouth open engulfing large amounts of water along with its prey.

The whale then expels the water with its tongue while trapping its food in its baleen bristles.

Because of its thin (extremely fine) baleen bristles, which are supported with about 350 baleen plates it is able to capture very small prey.

The typical diet of a bowhead contains small prey such as plankton, krill, copepods and mysids (tiny crustaceans).


Unlike other whales that migrate to warmer temperatures during mating season the bowhead whale remains in the arctic/sub arctic waters all year round.

Although the bowhead only travels in arctic waters it can be found migrating to various locations in the upper northern hemisphere such as the Bering sea, Beaufort sea and Chukchi sea.

Social Structure

Bowhead whales are very solitary animals often traveling alone or in small pods of up to six other whales.

Although they are solitary bowhead whales are extremely vocal and use underwater sounds to communicate with other whales during times of feeding, travel and when looking for a mating partner.

At times long, repeated melodic tones can be heard from miles away and are believed to be mating calls used to attract female whales.


During reproduction it is common to find several males clamoring to one or two females.

Bowhead whales often reach maturity between the ages of 10 – 15 and will begin reproducing around that age.

It is believed that reproduction occurs primarily in March although it can occur during other months.

Female whales typically reproduce every 3 – 4 years and gestation periods for these whales (the period between conception and birth) usually last for 13 – 14 months.


The bowhead whale was discovered in the early 1600′s by commercial whalers in the eastern arctic and in 1848 in the western arctic.

Whalers hunted for various materials such as blubber, meat (for cooking), oil (lamps, soap etc.), baleen and bones (which could be used to make tools, weapons and jewelry among other things.

Whaling continued into the early 1900′s until the price of oil greatly decreased due to the creation of various substitutes and the bowhead became nearly extinct making it more difficult to hunt and less profitable.

In 1946 policies created by groups such as the International Whaling Commission prohibited and limited the hunting of whales to insure their survival and allow whales to regrow their population.

Various policies such as protecting and limiting the killing of whales, regulating and monitoring the interaction people have with whales such as what type of interaction is and isn’t allowed for scientific research and whale watchers and several other agreements have been made between countries to try to repopulate the endangered whale species.

10 Informative bowhead whale facts

  1. Unlike other whale species the bowhead whale has a rounded back and completely lacks a dorsal fin.
  2. The bowhead whale makes up one of around 80 known species of cetacea.
  3. The scientific name for the bowhead whale is, “Balaena mysticetus”.
  4. Because these animals are marine mammals they are warm-blooded, give birth, produce milk and breathe air.
  5. These marine mammals get their name because of their bow-shaped jaw which resembles the bow of an archer.
  6. When a bowhead whale spouts water from its blowhole it is not water that the whale inhaled because it would get into the whales lungs causing it to drown. It is simply water that has pooled around the outside of the whales blowhole being forced up by the whales strong exhale of air.
  7. A bowhead whale has a lifespan of up to 100 years, although a few species that were in top condition have been estimated to live up to 200 years, making the bowhead whale one of the longest living animals in the planet.
  8. The only known natural predator to the bowhead whale is a pack of killer whales.
  9. Bowhead whales have been recorded holding their breath for up to 40 minutes when searching for food or exploring the ocean.
  10. The bowhead whale is considered the second heaviest animal in earth, second only to the blue whale. Although these marine mammals are the second heaviest animals in the planet there have been individual cases of other marine mammals that have grown to outweigh the bowhead whale, but these are individual cases not an average weight for that particular species.