Balaena mysticetus



Introduction to Bowhead Whale

One of the Baleen Whales is the Bowhead Whale. They are often referred to by a couple of other names too. Among them are the Greenland Right Whale and the Arctic Whale. This is the second heaviest whale in the world, after the blue whale.

Class Mammalia
Order Cetacea
Suborder Mysticeti
Family Balaenidae
Genus Balaena
Conservation Status Least Concern

Bowhead Whale Description

This is a very stocky whale that is dark in color with a white chin. They feature shades of gray and blue. They don’t have a dorsal fin. They can be up to 66 feet long and weigh from 66,000 to 130,000 pounds when fully grown. Females tend to be slightly larger than the males.

They have the largest mouth of all animals. They also have a lower jaw that is bowed with an upper jaw that is narrow. The skull is very boney and they use it to break through the ice where they live so that they can surface for air. The skull is bow shaped and can be up to 16 ½ feet long. They also have blubber that is thicker than any other species of cetacean, averaging 20 inches.

Bowhead Whale Distribution

The Bowhead Whale tends to enjoy the colder waters. They live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They are found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, The Sea of Okhotsk, and Hudson Bay. They are also found in various seas between Russia and Alaska. This includes the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and the Bering Sea.

They don’t migrate to warmer regions for food or for mating. However, they do have some routes within those habitats that they rely on for winter feeding and then others for summer feeding. During the summer, they are often found in straits and bays where they can find ample food supplies.

Bowhead Whale Behavior

They are one of the slowest species of whales when it comes to swimming. The Bowhead Whale can remain under the surface of the water for up to 40 minutes at a time. They don’t dive deeply for their food though. They often socialize in small groups with no more than 6 members. They are often seen engaging in various surface behaviors including tail slapping and breaching.

They are very vocal, and their sounds last for a long time, often being referred to as songs. They use such forms of vocalization to communicate and to help them with finding a mate. They are also believed to be vocal while searching for food.

Bowhead Whale skeleton / Author: Richard Lydekker

Bowhead Whale skeleton / Author: Richard Lydekker

Bowhead Whale Feeding

They have the longest baleen of all whales, close to 10 feet. They use it to strain prey from the water. These are plates that are used for filtering the food, they don’t have teeth. Their diet is mainly zooplankton and small crustaceans. They are also known to consume various invertebrates and fish.

The Bowhead Whale searches for food with the mouth wide open. The water and food sources are filtered through the baleen during this process. The jaw is very durable which prevents the plates from breaking as the force of water is going up against them. They may feed as a group, with a V formation that makes it more efficient for them to get their prey.

Bowhead Whale Reproduction

Mating generally will occur in March. However, it can occur any time from March through August. They are able to mate when they reach a length of 35 to 40 feet. Generally this is when they are from 10 to 15 years of age. The females will give birth to one calf every 3 or 4 years. It takes 13 to 14 months after mating for the calf to be born. When born, a young Bowhead Whale can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. They can be up to 13 feet long, very large compared to other animal species.

The young will consume the milk for the first months of life. The Bowhead Whale has a very long lifespan, up to 100 years. The average lifespan though is from 60 to 70 years. The females are believed to go through menopause. This is based on the fact that so many of the large females are often seen without young offspring year after year.

Bowhead Whale Conservation Status and Threats

A drastic drop in population occurred prior to 1966 for the Bowhead Whale due to whaling. Protection is in place now and the estimated population is about 24,900 which is around half of what it was before the whaling took place. Long term efforts to monitor this population are in place. Even though hunting them is illegal, it is believed to continue in many regions. There isn’t enough manpower to prevent it as this time. The World Wildlife Federation is assisting with preserving a whale sanctuary around Isabella Bay. This is close to the Clyde River in Nunavut, Canada.

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