Bowhead whale

Balaena mysticetus
Bowhead whale


Size: max 14-20m

Key features:
- V shaped blow
- Black body
- No dorsal fin
- Large head with arched mouth
- No callosities or barnacles
- Often raises fluke when diving

The bowhead whale is named for the shape of its enormous and distinctive bow shaped skull. It has a layer of blubber up to 42cm thick and the longest baleen of any whale with plates reaching 5m in length. When lying on the surface its profile resembles that of the loch ness monster with two humps appearing above the surface of the water. The species is also renowned for being one of the longest lived on earth, with the record at 211 years old.


It feeds at or below the surface of the water. It is a slow swimmer but is known to breach, lob-tail, slap the water with its pectoral fins and spy-hops. They generally travel in groups of three or less but group together when feeding. They are rarely found far from the edge of the pack ice and are the only large whales to live exclusively in the Arctic.


Bowhead whales are found in arctic and subarctic waters, close to ice packs. They normally migrate to the High arctic in the summer months but retreat southwards with the advancing ice packs in the winter months. They’re very rare in Europe but have previously been seen around the UK.


For several centuries bowhead whales were heavily hunted with a small number still being taken today by native subsistence hunters. Other threats include; habitat loss, chemical and noise pollution, ship strike and climate change.


ORCA has not recorded any sightings of this species yet.
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