Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale

Bowhead, Greenland right whale, Arctic whale, Steeple-top, Polar whale, Russia or Russian whale, Black Right whale

Balaena mysticetus
Life Span
100 yrs
10 km/h
50-60 t
14-18 m

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 Whale habitat map



Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

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.

Diet and Nutrition

Bowheads eat mostly zooplankton, including copepods and little shrimp-like animals about 1-3 mm long called euphausiids.

Mating Habits

late winter-early spring
13-14 months
1 calf
9-15 months

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.


Population threats

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.

Population number

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.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The water a bowhead whale spouts from its blowhole is not water it has inhaled because that would go into the whale's lungs and cause it to drown. It is water that has gathered outside the whale's blowhole which is forced upwards when the whale exhales forcefully.
  • Bowhead whales have been known to hold their breath for as much as 40 minutes when exploring the bottom of the ocean or searching for food.
  • The bowhead whale is the second heaviest animal on the Earth, next to the blue whale.
  • The bowhead whale is one of the longest living animals on the planet; some of them can live up to 200 years.
  • The bowhead whale has a layer of blubber1½ feet thick that protects it from the freezing cold Arctic waters.
  • The mouth of bowhead has baleen plates of up to 15 feet in length. It uses these to filter its food from the ocean water.


1. Bowhead Whale Wikipedia article -
2. Bowhead Whale on The IUCN Red List site -

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