The Bowhead whale has this name due to its bow-shaped mouth. It is black with a whitish patch on its chin, which features a 'necklace' of spots that are black. It lacks a dorsal fin. Its coloring is dark gray to black and it is the longest of all whales. It is usually observed as two bumps above the water, being its head and its back. The blow (or spout) comes from two widely-spaced blowholes, a bushy V seven meters high.
The bowhead is the only whale of the baleens to spend its whole life in arctic and sub-arctic seas. The Alaskan population winter in the southwestern Bering Sea. This group migrates north in the spring, following the openings it finds in the ice, to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In summer they are found in straits, bays and estuaries.
Bowhead whales swim slowly and usually travel on their own or in small herds with up to six animals. They may stay beneath the surface for up to forty minutes for a dive, but they are not regarded as deep divers. They are highly vocal, using underwater sounds to communicate when traveling, feeding and socializing. Bowheads can make long repetitive songs, which could be mating displays. This whale’s behavior includes breaching, spy-hopping and tail slapping. A behavior unique to this species is that it will use its exceptionally large head to break through ice, especially pieces that are thick.
Bowhead whales are polyandrous, one female having relationship with one or more males. Sexual activity takes place between pairs and in lively groups of several males with one or two females. Mating usually takes place from late winter to early spring. Spring migration occurs soon after this, and calves are born between April and June, with most of them in May. After a gestation lasting 13 - 14 months, one calf is born. It is fed with milk from its mother until it is weaned, this occurring 9 - 15 months after birth. Once the births have taken place, whales divide into groups to migrate. Mothers with their calves are in the group at the front. This could be to enable them to be first to feed on food that is encountered. The birthing interval is 3 - 4 years. Sexual maturity may not be attained until they are 20 years old.
Current threats include ongoing hunting by aboriginal people, collisions with ships and getting tangled in fishing nets. Pollution, climate change and being disturbed by tourists and vessels are also probably having detrimental effects on these whales.
According to International Whaling Commission's most recent estimate in 2011-2012, the total population size of bowhead whales is about 17,000 individuals in North Pacific and 1,300 in North Atlantic. The global population of bowhead whales appears to be increasing and it is classified as least concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.