Bowhead Whale

Name: Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Family: Balaenidae

Length: 12 - 20 m
Weight: 50 - 100 tonnes
Females are usually longer than males

Status: Least Concern

The bowhead whale truly is an ancient leviathan from the icy depths. When 200 year old spear heads were found embedded in the skin of a dead whale, the bowhead was given the title for the longest-living mammal on Earth. Hunted to the very brink of extinction, a sighting of this wondrous marine giant is a rare and special treat.

Diet: Like many other baleen whales, the bowhead whale filters zooplankton, krill and other crustaceans and usually remains close to the surface, where it feeds.

Habitat: Bowhead whales can be permanently be found living near pack ice and tend to follow ice edges as they retreat and move across the Svalbard archipelago.

Biology: Very little of the biology for this species is known. The head is massive and represents a third of the animal's total body length and the bowhead whale has the largest baleen plates seen in any whale; reaching up to 4.5 m in length and weighing up to 0.5 tonnes. Females appear to calve every 2 - 3 years and give birth to a calf 3 - 4.5 m in length.

Historical: Being a slow-swimming species which floats when it is dead, the bowhead whale was an ideal target for whalers and this once-common species was almost driven to extinction. Records from as early as 1600 mention the hunting of bowhead whales and even now, their huge bones litter many beaches across Spitsbergen. After hundreds of thousands of whales were killed, they were finally protected in 1939. Today, they are still incredibly rare.

Notes: Often referred to as the Greenland whale, the bowhead whale is the largest of the resident Arctic whales. In identifying bowhead whales, there is no dorsal fin, which is very characteristic of the species. The blow (spray) forms a very distinctive V-shape, which can reach a height of 7 m. The blowhole is high up on the head, giving the bowhead whale a distinctive double-hump profile as it surfaces. A white 'chin' and fluke (which ranges from being partially white to fully white) are useful for identification when closer to the animal.

Trivia: The bowhead whale lives longer than any other mammal on Earth and is thought to live for over two hundred years.

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