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BOWHEAD WHALE } Balaena mysticetus
FAMILY: Balaenidae

DESCRIPTION: Bowheads are enormous whales with stocky, blubber-insulated bodies and thick, triangular-shaped heads. They are blue-black in color with a large white spot on their lower jaw. There may be some white markings on the belly and a whitish band just forward of the tail. Their immense heads measure nearly one-third of their body length, which can total 65 feet in length. Like many arctic whales, bowheads have no dorsal fin; this adaptation allows them to navigate underneath sea ice. Bowhead whales have two blowholes, producing a distinctive V-shaped spray. Their flippers are broad and paddle shaped.

HABITAT: Bowhead whales spend their entire lives in and around arctic waters.

RANGE: B owhead whales are found in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas in the western Arctic Ocean; Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic; the Okhotsk Sea in Russia; and Spitsbergen westward to Greenland in the far North Atlantic Ocean.

MIGRATION: Migrating northward in the spring and south in the fall, bowhead whales are most often found on the edge of the arctic pack ice.

BREEDING: Female bowheads give birth between every three to seven years in the spring or early summer. Calves are born with a thick layer of blubber, insulating them from the freezing waters and contributing to their substantial birth weight in excess of 2,000 pounds. Calves stick close to their mothers, riding in their slipstream and nursing for most of a year.

LIFE CYCLE: The lifespan of bowheads is not known for certain, but it is believed to be at least 70 years and likely more than 200, making them the longest-lived mammals on the planet.

FEEDING: Bowhead whales are baleen whales, meaning they use a comb-like strainer made of hundreds of long, narrow baleen plates attached to their upper jaws to filter large amounts of plankton.

THREATS: Hunted commercially for their oil, meat, and baleen, bowhead whales were driven nearly to extinction before the species became protected from commercial whaling in 1946. Oil and gas exploration and development, collisions with ships, industrial pollution, and global warming all currently pose major threats to bowhead whales.

POPULATION TREND: The species once numbered in excess of 50,000 whales. Today, four of the five remaining populations have fewer than 400 whales each. The largest population of bowhead whales is the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock, currently estimated at 10,000 individuals and rising.

Photo by Rick LeDuc, NOAA