Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Also known as: Greenland Right Whale
French: Baleine De Grande Baie, Baleine Du Groenland
Spanish: Ballena Boreal, Ballena De Groenlandia
GenusBalaena (1)
SizeLength: 12 - 20 m (3)
Weight60 - 80 tonnes (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Appendix I of CITES (4), and Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (5).

The bowhead whale is so-called because of its bow-shaped mouth (7) and is black in colour with a whitish chin patch (6), broken by a 'necklace' of black spots (8). This whale lacks a dorsal fin and is usually visible as two bumps from above water, which correspond to the head and the back (8). The blow (or spout) is produced from the two widely spaced blowholes, and is a bushy V shape reaching seven metres in height (8). The baleen is dark grey to black in colour (6) and is the longest of any whale; sometimes measuring well over three metres in length (3). Females are larger than males, but otherwise the two sexes are generally of similar appearance (7).

This species was once found throughout the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere seas (7). Only a few populations remain today, in Arctic seas following the retreat and advance of the pack ice (3).

The bowhead whale is often found close to the edge of the Arctic ice shelf (6).

Amazingly, this whale is known to live to over 100 years of age, a fact established by the discovery of stone harpoon heads (out of use since the late 1800s) in the flesh of specimens. The diet consists of planktonic crustaceans, which are filtered through the baleen plates (7). Bowhead whales often skim-feed on the surface of the sea but also gather food from the sea floor.

To insulate against the cold Arctic waters, bowhead blubber may be 70 centimetres thick and the whales can break through ice of a foot deep to make breathing holes (3). Bowheads are slow breeders and maturity may not be reached for 20 years. A single calf is born every three or four years after a gestation period of about 13 months (3).

The main threat to this species has been hunting, particularly following the expansion of the whaling industry after the 1600s (7). Other current threats include entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships (8). Pollution, climate change and disturbance by tourists are also likely to be having a detrimental effect on this whale (3).

In 1986 the worldwide moratorium on whaling came into effect, although small-scale hunting of this whale by the Inuit of Alaska continues under the guidance of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) (9). The population of bowhead whales appears able to absorb this low-level pressure however, and numbers are increasing in some areas (2).

To learn more about conservation of the bowhead whale see:

Authenticated (19/08/02) by WDCS, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
  2. WDCS. (2002) Pers. comm.
  3. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. CITES (March, 2008)
  5. CMS (March, 2008)
  6. Animal Diversity Web (August, 2002)$narrative.html
  7. UNEP-WCMC (March, 2008)
  8. Carwardine, M., Hoyt, E., Fordyce, R.E. and and Gill, P. (1998) Whales and Dolphins. Harper Collins, London.
  9. International Whaling Commission (August, 2002)