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.