Bowhead Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Bowhead Whale

Balaena mysticetus

Also known as

Greenland whale, Greenland right whale, polar whale

Distribution

Throughout the Arctic ocean

Écosystèmes/habitats

Offshore, near ice edge

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Special concern/data deficient

Taxonomie

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 are less streamlined than other baleen whales. Their blackish-blue, stocky bodies have small flippers and no dorsal fin. They have thick blubber, up to 50 centimetres in some areas, and white markings on their chin, fins and underbelly. Their lower and upper jaws each have around 330 baleen plates, which can grow up to four metres long. Females grow faster and larger than males and can be up to 20 metres long and weigh 100 tonnes.