Bowhead Whale

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

Bowhead whales can be 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 animals alive, second the blue whale.

These whales also have the thickest blubber out of all of the whale species measuring between 17-19 inches thick to help it maintain its body heat in arctic/sub arctic waters and their head 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 measure in around 30% – 40% percent of the length of its entire body.

The large jaw helps these marine mammals consume large quantities of prey in a single gulp.

When fully matured the bowhead whale can grow to lengths of up to 66 ft. and weigh as much as 100 tons.

Their body is fairly thick and rotund in shape and is largest in the middle but tapers down towards the flukes.

When compared to other whale species the bowhead has a pair of short, narrow flippers and does not possess a dorsal.

In terms of color the bowhead whale has dark grayish – black colored skin and a white spot on the lower snout.


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

Rather than possessing teeth bowhead whales are born with baleen plates that have long thin bristles attached to them.

These marine mammals are known as filter feeders and hunt for their food by swimming towards their prey with their mouth open in order to capture their food and trap it in its baleen bristles..

Unlike other species of baleen whale the bowhead whale is known as a skimmer.

Rather than engulfing a large group of prey in a single gulp these marine mammals will continuously keep their mouth open while swimming forward in order to skim the water and filter the prey that enters its mouth and gets caught in its bristles.

Because these whales possess thin (extremely fine) baleen bristles that are supported with about 350 baleen plates it is able to capture very small prey.

The bristles act like a filter by allowing water to pass through while being packed together tight enough to prevent prey from escaping.


Unlike other whale species that are known to 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.

In order to manage living in cold waters throughout the year these marine mammals have a large head that helps them break apart sheets of ice and a thick layer of insulated blubber to help them maintain their body heat in the most extreme cold temperatures.

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.

By communicating underwater these whales are able to communicate very quickly as sound travels four times faster in the water than it does on land.

In addition to communicating with sound bowhead whales may also communicate by breaching the water, spyhopping and lobtailing (slapping their flukes against the surface of the water).


During reproduction it is common to find several males clamoring to one or two females in an attempt to be the chosen mating partner.

Once impregnated the female bowhead whale will go through a gestation period that typically lasts 13 – 14 months.

At the end of the gestation term the female will give birth to its child and begin nursing it by feeding the child milk until it is able to take in solid foods.

While fertile the female whales will reproduce a single offspring once every 3 – 4 years.

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.

In terms of lifespan a healthy bowhead whale may live for up to 200 years making it the longest known living mammal on earth.


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 these marine mammals for various materials such as blubber, meat (for cooking), oil (lamps, soap etc.) and 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 due to the fact that 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 bowhead whale species along with other endangered species of whale.

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 whale.
  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.