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. 

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has assessed both bowhead whale populations in Canadian waters as of Special Concern. Yet, only the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population has been listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), where it was designated under Schedule 1 as of Special Concern.