Bowhead Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Bowhead Whale

Balaena mysticetus

Also known as

Greenland whale, Greenland right whale, polar whale


Throughout the Arctic ocean


Offshore, near ice edge

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Special concern/data deficient


Suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales); Family Balaenidae (right whales)


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The bowhead whale’s name comes from the bow-shape of its large upper jaw. Its jaw holds the longest baleen plates of any whale, reaching up to four meters long! Bowhead whales use these plates to filter water for food, like zooplankton, krill and small fish. Their large heads makes up one third of their body length and are encased by a thick layer of blubber. This allows them to explore waters farther north than other whales, which helps them to avoid predators like killer whales. Bowhead whales also use their large heads to smash through ice  more than 20 centimetres thick. This ice smashing often leaves bowhead whales with distinct scars that scientists use to identify different individuals. 

Bowhead whales can live for more than 100 years, only reaching sexual maturity at around 25 years old. They are slow reproducers: females give birth approximately once every three years with gestation lasting from 12 to 16 months. Calves are born between four and four and a half meters in length without their distinct white markings that develop as they age. Calves are usually born in time for the spring migration to northern feeding grounds, which takes place between April and June. When the ice melts in the spring, new areas open up and the whales are able to travel farther north to waters rich with krill, zooplankton and small fish. In their northern ranges, the distribution of bowhead whales mirrors that of their prey, making them a good indicator species for the health of the Arctic food web. This means that the presence of bowhead whales is a good indication that the habitat is healthy and productive, allowing krill, zooplankton and small fish to flourish and feed other animals in the food web. As the sea ice begins to solidify again in autumn, bowhead whales travel south once more to their breeding grounds.