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The Bowhead Whale is a large baleen whale (baleen is a flexible material found in long, thin plates along the jaw which act to filter small food particles rather than using regular teeth). The Bowhead Whale has a stocky barrel-shaped body and a large head that takes up about 30% of its length. Its body is mostly black; white markings appear with age on the chin, fluke tips and tail. Bowhead Whales do not have a dorsal fin and their pectoral flippers are small and paddle-shaped. The upper jaw is bowed sharply upward with an average of 330 baleen plates on each side. Adult females are slightly larger than adult males.

Weight: 75 to 100 t (82 to 110 tons). Length: Females, 16 to 18 m (53 to 59 ft); Males, 14 to 17 m (46 to 56 ft).

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Bowheads are circumpolar in their distribution. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population of Bowhead Whales spends the winter (November to April) in the western and central Bering Sea amongst broken pack ice. In spring (April to June), most whales migrate along the northern coast of Alaska to the eastern Beaufort Sea, first appearing in western Amundsen Gulf in offshore lead areas in late May. In recent years, feeding aggregations of Bowhead Whale in the south-eastern Beaufort have formed approximately two weeks earlier than in the 1980s. 

Range map information

Bowhead Whales live in marine waters ranging from open water to thick, unconsolidated pack ice. They are able to use their head and back to break ice over 20 cm thick, in order to breathe.

Bowhead Whales filter feed mostly on dense aggregations of small invertebrates or “zooplankton”. Satellite tagging studies help identify migration routes and areas frequented by Bowhead Whales in the western Arctic, which may indicate important feeding or congregation areas.

Females give birth every three or four years to a single calf, usually during the spring migration. Bowhead Whales can live to be over 150 years of age. A weapon fragment found in a Bowhead Whale caught off the Alaskan coast in May 2007 dated back to 1879.

Bowhead Whales are still recovering from commercial whaling, which ended in the early 20th century when hunting became unprofitable. The population is currently believed to number over 12,000 individuals and may be at or near the pre-whaling population size.

Threats are primarily due to increased human activities in the Arctic. These threats include noise, ship collisions and pollution (such as oil spills). 

Bowhead Whales can be displaced for short periods of time by industrial activity such as seismic surveys and oil and gas development. Potential long-term effects from this displacement are unknown. 

Climate change influences ice conditions, potential predators and prey availability. This may impact the survival and/or distribution of this whale. The extent and nature of climate change impacts are currently unknown.

In 1980 and 1986, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed Bowhead Whale as Endangered. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population of Bowhead Whale was then assessed as Special Concern in 2005 and again in 2009. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population was listed as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2007. A national management plan for this population is available on the federal Species at Risk Public Registry.

In Canadian waters, the Fisheries Act and Marine Mammal Regulations make it illegal to hunt or disturb whales except for subsistence use.