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What is a Bowhead Whale?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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The bowhead whale, Balena mysticetus, is a large baleen whale that lives in the Arctic Ocean. Noted for its enormous, bowed head, the whale is one of the heaviest species after the blue whale. Bowhead whales have been hunted since their discovery, and are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.)

At birth, the bowhead whale is between 11-18 ft (3.5-5.5 m) in length and weighs about one ton (907 kg.) In the first year of life, the bowhead can double in length. Adults generally grow to be 50-60 ft (15-18.3 m,) but some can be larger. Females are somewhat larger than males, and while estimates vary as to the weight range of the bowhead whale, the average seems to be about 60-100 tons (54,431-90,718 kg.)

Bowheads are baleen whales, meaning that instead of having teeth they feature keratin baleen plates in their mouths through which shrimp and small fish can be filtered. These plates are larger in bowheads than in any other whale, reaching lengths of 14 ft (4.3 m.) The head of the bowhead whale is proportionally gigantic, making up about 1/3 of the whale’s length. The thick skull allows the whale to bash through arctic ice, necessary as, although it migrates from place to place, it remains in the frigid region all year. This arctic lifestyle also gives bowheads the thickest blubber layer of any animal.

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Bowheads can be found alone, or in small groups of up to six animals. They breed in late spring, and gestation is believed to take at least 13 months, but may be longer. Calves nurse for up to one year. The lifespan of the bowhead whale is a hotly contended issue among experts, as several recent specimens have been found to have antique spearheads inside them at death. Many believe that bowheads may live for 100-200 years, although a high proportion has been historically killed long before this great age is reached.

The bowhead whale is a non-aggressive animal that will hide under ice floes rather than attack a predator. This retiring nature has made the species an easy target for attack by orcas, humans and even the occasionally hungry or territorial sea lion. In the North Atlantic, human whaling began as early as the 16th century, when the whales were prized for oil, baleen, and leather products. North Pacific hunting did not being until the mid-19th century, but it is estimated that within only two decades, the Pacific population had dropped by half.

Due to the severe decline in numbers, the bowhead whale has been protected from commercial hunting since the mid-20th century. The International Whaling Committee allows subsistence hunters and Inuit tribes to kill a controlled number of whales each year, for food and ritual purposes. Since protection has been instated, the population has rebounded considerably. A 2008 announcement by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans suggested that there are now between 14,000-48,000 bowheads living in the Eastern Arctic Ocean. Yet the conservation status of other populations remains unknown, and the animal is still considered endangered by IUCN and under the United States Endangered Species Act.

As population increases, there will likely be pushes from whaling nations to reinstate the commercial hunt to the bowhead whale. If you would like to help maintain the environment of the bowhead and protect the species, consider volunteering time or making donations to reputable conservation organizations. Like all marine mammals, the bowhead is endangered by pollution levels and climate change. While numbers may be rebounding for the species, their future remains uncertain, and conservation policy remains essential to protect the population of bowhead whales.

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