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Bowhead Whale: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Welcome to this comprehensive guide about the bowhead whale, one of the most extraordinary marine mammals on the planet. Aptly named for its bow-shaped skull, the bowhead whale is a true denizen of the Arctic waters and is renowned for its incredible ability to thrive in such extreme conditions.

This fact sheet serves as a one-stop resource to delve into the fascinating world of this whale, covering everything from its biology and behavior to its conservation status.

The Bowhead Whale at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Species:B. mysticetus

Essential Information

Average Size:45-59 ft (14-18m)
Average Weight:75-100 tons (68,000-90,000 kg)
Average Lifespan:Up to 200 years
Geographical Range:Arctic and Subarctic waters
Conservation Status:Least Concern (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

The bowhead whale is a unique species in its own right and does not have any recognized subspecies. However, scientists have identified five different populations based on their range:

  • The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock
  • The Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin stock
  • The Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock
  • The Sea of Okhotsk stock
  • The Svalbard-Barents Sea stock.

Each population has adapted to its specific range but is generally considered to be the same species with no significant morphological differences.

Bowhead whaleSource: Wikimedia Commons


The bowhead whale is a remarkable creature with several distinguishing features that set it apart. Measuring between 45 and 59 feet (14 to 18 meters) in length, it is one of the larger whale species. Adult bowheads can weigh between 75 and 100 tons (68,000-90,000 kg).

The most striking feature of this species is its massive, bow-shaped skull, which can be up to 16.5 feet (5 meters) long and accounts for about 30% of the animal’s total body length.

Bowheads have a dark skin color, usually black, but sometimes dark brown, which allows them to absorb sunlight more efficiently in cold waters.

Their enormous baleen plates can measure up to 13 feet (4 meters) in length and are used to filter out tiny organisms from the water. Unlike many other whale species, bowheads do not have a dorsal fin.

Males and females are relatively similar in size, although females may be slightly larger. No distinct physical features differentiate the sexes externally.

Habitat and Distribution

Bowhead whales are specialized for life in Arctic and subarctic regions, making them one of the few whale species that do not migrate to warmer waters for calving.

They are well-adapted to icy environments and have even been observed breaking through ice using their strong skulls. Their range includes several seas and bays around the Arctic, notably the Bering Sea, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Hudson Bay, and the waters off Greenland.

Bowhead whale tailSource: Wikimedia Commons


The bowhead whale is a diurnal creature, active during both day and night. They are known for their playful nature, often engaging in breaching, tail slapping, and even “nose-standing” where they lift their heads out of the water.

Bowheads are social animals that often travel in small groups called pods. Pod sizes can range from just a couple of individuals to more than a dozen. They are also known to interact with other species, including beluga whales.

Bowhead whales use a variety of vocalizations for communication, including clicks, moans, and complex songs. These vocalizations are believed to serve multiple purposes, including navigation, social interaction, and mating calls. The sound can travel for many miles underwater, aiding long-distance communication.

Bowhead whales are incredibly agile for their size, able to turn almost in their own body length, thanks to a large fluke and a flexible body. This agility, along with their strong skulls, allows them to navigate through sea ice, an ability that many other large whales lack.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Bowhead whales are filter feeders and primarily consume zooplankton. Their diet includes copepods, amphipods, and various small crustaceans.

Bowheads have an interesting feeding technique where they swim with their mouths open, taking in large volumes of water filled with zooplankton.

Their baleen plates then filter out the food, which is subsequently swallowed. They can eat up to 2 tons (1,814 kg) of food per day. Their unique ability to skim-feed sets them apart from many other baleen whales, who generally lunge-feed or gulp-feed.


Adult bowhead whales have few natural predators due to their large size and the extreme environments they inhabit. Killer whales (orcas) are the primary natural threat to bowhead whales, although such encounters are relatively rare. The primary threat to young bowheads comes from the same species.

Bowhead Whale with baby

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Bowhead whales generally mate during late spring and early summer. Males may compete for females, although they don’t exhibit as aggressive behaviors as seen in other species.

After a gestation period of about 13 to 14 months, a single calf is born. The calf is usually around 13-15 feet (4-4.6 meters) in length at birth.

Bowhead whales typically give birth to one calf, although twins have been reported, albeit rarely. Calves are nursed for at least six months but can continue nursing for over a year.

The strong maternal bond helps the calf learn essential skills for survival in the Arctic conditions. During the initial weeks, the mother is highly protective of her young, keeping it close to evade potential predators like orcas.

Conservation and Threats

The bowhead whale is currently listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List. However, certain subpopulations are still at risk due to historical whaling.

The primary threats to bowhead whales are anthropogenic, including ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and climate change affecting their Arctic habitat. Additionally, noise pollution from ships and drilling can disturb their natural behaviors and communication.

Various international laws and agreements are in place to protect bowhead whales, including the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling.

There are also Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where bowhead whales are known to feed or give birth. Scientific monitoring is ongoing to understand their population size, distribution, and the impact of climate change on their habitat.

Fun Facts

  1. Bowhead whales have the largest mouth of any animal, accounting for nearly one-third of their body length.
  2. These whales possess the thickest blubber of any whale species, which can be up to 17 inches (43 cm) thick.
  3. They are one of the longest-lived mammals, with some individuals estimated to be over 200 years old.
  4. Unlike many other whales, bowheads are capable of breaking through sea ice to create breathing holes, thanks to their massive skulls.
  5. The bowhead whale’s baleen is the longest of any whale, measuring up to 13 feet (4 meters), and was historically used in products like corsets and buggy whips.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do bowhead whales live?

They are one of the longest-lived mammals, with some individuals estimated to be over 200 years old.

What do bowhead whales eat?

Bowhead whales primarily eat zooplankton, including copepods and amphipods.

Are bowhead whales endangered?

The bowhead whale is currently listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List. However, some subpopulations are still at risk due to historical whaling.

How big is a bowhead whale?

Adult bowhead whales can grow up to 66 feet (20 meters) long and weigh as much as 100 tons (90,718 kg).

Can bowhead whales break through ice?

Yes, bowhead whales are capable of breaking through sea ice to create breathing holes, thanks to their strong skulls.

How do bowhead whales communicate?

They use a series of vocalizations, such as moans, grunts, and complex songs, for communication and navigation.

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