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bowhead whale

Bowhead Whale

The arctic whale with the world's largest mouth!

What you need to know about the Bowhead Whale

Our Expert Says… "Bowheads are an incredible species. Although about half the size of the blue whale, Bowheads almost match them for weight - they are a powerful creature. At 60 to 100 tons their mass compared to size is remarkable and was responsible for their popularity with early whalers. Baffin Bay and the Northwest Passage offer the best chances to see Bowheads."

The bowhead whale is the only whale species that are endemic to the Arctic and subarctic oceans. It has a remarkable, triangular-shaped head that it uses to smash through the ice. It’s this amazing feature that gives the whale its common name. It’s also sometimes referred to as the arctic whale or the polar whale.

A baleen whale, bowheads feed on plankton and small crustaceans, consuming about 2 tons per day. They are helped in this huge task by having the largest mouth of any living creature! The bowhead whale’s mouth takes up over a third of its body length. Inside it are the largest baleen plates to be found in any whale - up to 13ft long.

But the bowhead whale isn’t done with records there. It’s also thought to be the longest-lived mammal species, with some individuals able to live for more than 200 years.

Unfortunately, this amazing species was one of the first to be heavily hunted by commercial whalers, its territory being fairly close to large populations in northern Europe, Canada, and the northern United States. There were thought to be about 50,000 individuals prior to large-scale hunting of the species, and the numbers were critically low before the 1966 moratorium on their hunting.

It’s thought there are now between 35,000 and 40,000 bowhead whales remaining. Although their conservation status is listed as “least concern”, of the 5 global “stocks” of this whale, 3 are classed as endangered, and one is vulnerable.

The bowhead whale has some remarkable physical properties and it’s these that made it attractive to whalers. As an arctic native, the bowhead whale is well adapted to survive in very cold temperatures. An adult bowhead can be up to 60ft or more in length and is protected from the cold by a layer of blubber up to 20 inches thick, the most of any animal.

It’s also a slow swimmer and likes to rest at the surface, making it an easy target. Once dead, the carcass also floats - another aspect that made it popular with commercial whalers.

Unlike other whales, the bowhead doesn’t have a dorsal fin, and it’s thought this is because it spends much of its time under the ice. The huge head is very strong, and it’s used to break through ice to create breathing holes. Inuit hunters have reported witnessing bowheads smash through ice up to 2ft thick.

Bowhead Whale: Pictures & Videos

bowhead whale

Spots where the Bowhead Whale can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Exploring the pack ice

The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.

It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.

Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge.   In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.

Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.

Our trips to spot the Bowhead Whale

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