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 have long been targeted by humans for food and other purposes because they are slow swimmers with high blubber content that helps them float. They have been targeted by subsistence Inuit hunters since as early as 1100 A.D., but were severely depleted when the commercial whaling industry took off in the mid-19th century. As a result of careful management, both the Eastern and Western populations have recovered enough to sustain a small subsistence harvest in Canada. Harvesting bowhead whales is important for Inuit and other northern peoples to retain cultural and traditional practices. All parts of a whale are used and nothing is wasted: for example, bones can be used for tools such as sled runners and shelter scaffolding, oils for heat and light, blubber for food, and baleen for rope. Climate change has resulted in a warmer Arctic with less sea ice. The increased access to northern areas that were once inaccessible due to ice has intensified industrial activities. As Arctic waters become busier, bowhead whales could be at a greater risk of a vessel strike or entanglement, as well as being affected by noise pollution.