Bowhead Whale (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population)

Balaena mysticetus

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

This population of Bowhead Whale was reconfirmed in 2009 as a species of Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). It is listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and was afforded protection under SARA as of December 2007. Additional protection is afforded through the federal Fisheries Act. Under SARA, a management plan must be developed for this species.

General Description

The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) is a large baleen whale in the Balaenidae family. Other common names include the Greenland Whale, Greenland Right Whale and Polar Whale. In northern Aboriginal languages, it is known as Arviq or Arvik (Inuktitut and Inuvialuktun), Agkhovik (Inupiat), Akhgvopik (Yupik) and Ittiv (Chukchi). The Bowhead Whale has the following characteristics:

  • Barrel-shaped body and a very large head (about 30% of total body length);
  • Upper jaw is bowed sharply upward; each side of upper jaw has on average 330 baleen plates up to 427 cm long ;
  • The blubber layer is thick, from 5.5 cm on the chin to about 28 cm over the trunk reaching a maximum of 50 cm;
  • Flippers are small and paddle-shaped;
  • No dorsal fin or dorsal hump;
  • Flukes are pointed at the tip;
  • Calves are 4 to 4.5 m long at birth and brownish black in colour; and
  • Adults are black in colour with white areas near the chin, eyelids, flipper insertions, ano-genital area, tail stock and flukes

Distribution

Bowhead Whales have a nearly circumpolar distribution in the northern hemisphere, with a territory that covers waters between 54° to 85°N latitude. Physical barriers such as land and impassable ice are believed to have divided the world’s bowheads into four populations, two of which occur in Canada.

The extent of occurrence of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population in Canadian waters is roughly 207,000 km². Whales in this population winter in the western and central Bering Sea where there is adequate open water and broken pack ice. In the spring, this population of Bowhead Whales migrate north and east to the eastern Beaufort Sea. In summer, they are distributed mainly in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, along the south and west coasts of Banks Island, in Amundsen Gulf, and along western Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. In fall, the population of Bowheads migrates from the Canadian Beaufort Sea into the Alaskan Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, and then into the Bering Sea.

Habitat and Life History

Bowhead Whales occur in marine waters within areas ranging from open water to thick, unconsolidated pack ice. They break through ice over 20 cm thick with the crown of the head to breathe, and can navigate and communicate under extensive ice fields using their sophisticated acoustic sense. They grow and develop slowly, reaching sexual maturity at about 25 years of age. Females grow faster than males and give birth approximately once every three years during the spring migration. Gestation lasts between 12 and 16 months. Lifespan is estimated between 50 and 75 years, with some individuals reaching over 100 years of age.

Diet

Bowhead Whales feed on crustacean zooplankton such as euphausiids and copepods. Epibenthic organisms (mysids and gammariid amphipods) are also consumed. It has been suggested that the annual variability in Bowhead Whale sightings is related to the abundance and distribution of zooplankton.

Threats

Commercial whaling was once the greatest threat to the Bowhead Whale and the main reason why the species is at risk in parts of its range. At present, the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) may pose the greatest threat. Bowhead Whales are known to be displaced for short periods of time by industrial activity such as oil and gas exploration and development. Potential long-term effects on Bowhead Whales are unknown. Lastly, climatic factors, which influence ice conditions and prey availability, may impact the survival and/or distribution of this whale.

Similar Species

  • There are no similar species.

Text Sources: COSEWIC Status Report 2009.

For more information, visit the Species at Risk (SARA) Public Registry Profile.

Bowhead Whale (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population)

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Illustration by G. Kuehl
© Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Scientific name: Balaena mysticetus
SARA Status: Special Concern (December 2007)
COSEWIC Status: Special Concern (April 2009)
Region: Western Arctic

Bowhead Whale Distribution (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population) as described in the following paragraphs

Bowhead Whale Distribution (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population)

Did You Know?

Nothing wasted

The bowhead whale was once an important part of the traditional diet of—and an essential resource for—Inuit peoples. The successful capture of a bowhead whale meant food, tools, equipment, shelter, heat and light for a whole community. The whale’s blubber was not only an excellent food source, but was also the best source of oil for light and heat. Bowhead rib and jaw bones were used as roof supports, and the vertebrae as blocks for chopping and cutting. Other bones were made into tools and sled runners. The whale’s baleen were used to lash together sleds and kayak frames. A limited and well-managed survival hunt has recently been revived in both the eastern and western Arctic under the Nunavut and Inuvialuit Land Claim Agreements. This hunt is very small and carefully managed.

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