Facts About the Bowhead Whale

One of the Longest-Living Mammals

Adult bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) using blowhole

Michael Nolan / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) got its name from its high, arched jaw that resembles a bow. They are a cold-water whale that lives in the Arctic. Bowheads are still hunted by native whalers in the Arctic through special permission for aboriginal subsistence whaling. 


The bowhead whale, also known as the Greenland right whale, is about 45-60 feet long and weighs 75-100 tons when full-grown. They have a stocky appearance and no dorsal fin.

Bowheads are mostly blue-black in coloration, but have white on their jaw and belly, and a patch on their tail stock (peduncle) that gets whiter with age. Bowheads also have stiff hairs on their jaws. The flippers of a bowhead whale are broad, paddle-shaped and about six feet long. Their tail can be 25 feet across from tip to tip.

The bowhead's blubber layer is over 1 1/2 feet thick, which provides insulation against the cold waters of the Arctic.

Bowheads can be individually identified using scars on their bodies that they get from ice. These whales are capable of breaking through several inches of ice to get to the water surface.

An Interesting Discovery

In 2013, a study described a new organ in bowhead whales. Amazingly, the organ is 12 feet long and wasn't yet described by scientists. The organ is located on the roof of a bowhead whale's mouth and is made of a sponge-like tissue. It was discovered by scientists during the processing of a bowhead whale by natives. They think that it is used to regulate heat, and possibly for detecting prey and regulating baleen growth.


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Cetartiodactyla
  • InfraorderCetacea
  • Superfamily: Mysticeti
  • Family: Balaenidae
  • Genus: Balaena
  • Species: mysticetus

Habitat and Distribution

The bowhead is a cold-water species, living in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding waters. The largest and most well-studied population is found off Alaska and Russia in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. There are additional populations between Canada and Greenland, north of Europe, in the Hudson Bay and Okhotsk Sea.


Bowhead whales are a baleen whale, meaning they filter their food. Bowheads have about 600 baleen plates that are up to 14 feet long, illustrating the immense size of the whale's head. Their prey includes planktonic crustaceans such as copepods, plus small invertebrates and fish from the seawater.


The bowhead's breeding season is in late spring/early summer. Once mating occurs, the gestation period is 13-14 months long, after which a single calf is born. At birth, calves are 11-18 feet long weigh about 2,000 pounds. The calf nurses for 9-12 months and isn't sexually mature until it is 20 years old.

The bowhead is considered one of the world's longest-living animals, with evidence showing some bowheads may live to over 200 years.

Conservation Status and Human Uses

The bowhead whale is listed as species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, as the population is increasing. However, the population, currently estimated at 7,000-10,000 animals, is far lower than the estimated 35,000-50,000 whales that existed before they were decimated by commercial whaling. Whaling of bowheads started in the 1500s, and only about 3,000 bowheads existed by the 1920s. Due to this depletion, the species is still listed as endangered by the U.S.

Bowheads are still hunted by native Arctic whalers, who use the meat, baleen, bones, and organs for food, art, household goods, and construction. Fifty-three whales were taken in 2014. The International Whaling Commission issues subsistence whaling quotas to the U.S. and Russia to hunt bowheads.

Sources and Further Information

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Kennedy, Jennifer. "Facts About the Bowhead Whale." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/bowhead-whale-2291516. Kennedy, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). Facts About the Bowhead Whale. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bowhead-whale-2291516 Kennedy, Jennifer. "Facts About the Bowhead Whale." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bowhead-whale-2291516 (accessed May 28, 2023).