Bowhead whales live in the cold waters of the northern Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. They feed mainly on plankton and crustaceans, filtering them through baleen plates. Their average lifespan is not known, but it is believed that they can live to be more than 100 years old.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Artiodactyla
Infraorder - Cetecea
Family - Balaenidae
Genus - Balaena
Species - B. mysticetus.
Common Names - Bowhead Whale, Greenland Right Whale
Bowhead whales have large skulls, which are strong enough to allow them to break through thick sheets of ice. They are mainly dark-colored and have white chins and bow-shaped mouths that curve up. They also have thick layers of blubber and small pectoral fins. Bowhead whales do not have dorsal fins. Adults weigh between 75 and 100 tons and measure between 35 and 40 feet in length. The only whale species larger than the bowhead whale is the blue whale.
Bowhead whales typically breed during late winter and early spring. Females have a gestation period of 13 to 14 months, then they produce one calf. Bowhead whale calves weigh around 2,000 pounds and measure 13 feet long when they are born. They feed on their mother’s milk until they are between 9 and 15 months old. The steady supply of milk helps them grow rapidly each day. When they are weaned, their growth rate slows down.
Bowhead whales migrate in segregated groups, with mothers and their calves typically in front. They also form V-shaped groups to feed on plankton and crustaceans. Bowhead whales do not usually face threats from predators due to their size, but they do shelter below ice drifts at times.
Bowhead whales were described for the first time in the 1758 publication of “Systema Naturae” by Carl Linnaeus. They were hunted extensively by whalers starting in the 1600s, which reduced their numbers from the 30,000 to 50,000 range to roughly 3,000 by the 1920s. Whalers hunted them for their blubber, baleen and oil.
Bowhead whales are listed as “Least Concern,” despite the significant decline in their numbers due to whaling. Now that commercial whaling is prohibited, their populations have been rebounding. Current estimates put their numbers between 7,000 and 10,000. Bowhead whales do face threats from ship collisions, fishing gear entanglements, noise from offshore oil drilling and contaminants. The ban on whaling is the main conservation effort to protect this species.