Bowhead Whale (Eastern Canada-West Greenland 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

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 and tail.

Habitat

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 Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population and the Eastern Arctic – West Greenland population.

The Eastern Arctic – West Greenland population was once considered to be made up of two distinct populations (Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Davis Strait-Baffin Bay). The extent of occurrence of the Eastern Arctic – Western Greenland population is roughly one million km² and is considered stable. Bowhead Whales from this population summer in western Baffin Bay, the Canadian High Arctic, northern Foxe Basin, and northwestern Hudson Bay. The fall migration occurs over two to three months starting in late August/September. Wintering occurs in areas with unconsolidated pack ice such as northern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, central Davis Strait, southern Baffin Bay, and off West Greenland. These areas provide shelter and protection from predation.

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.

Bowhead Whales feed on crustacean zooplankton such as euphausiids and copepods, which they filter through hair-like material called baleen, by skimming the water under the surface for long periods of time. 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. Other threats may include industrial and manmade underwater noises, net entanglements, collisions with ships, pollution and climate change.

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

Bowhead Whale (Eastern Canada-West Greenland population)

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Illustration by G. Kuehl
© Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Scientific name: Balaena mysticetus
SARA Status: No Status
COSEWIC Status: Special Concern
Region: Nunavut, Quebec (Eastern Arctic)

Bowhead Whale Distribution (Eastern Canada – West Greenland population) as described in the following paragraphs

Bowhead Whale Distribution (Eastern Canada – West Greenland population)

Did You Know?

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 was 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.

Related information