Giants of the Arctic
They are also known in quiet Arctic waters for their intense bouts of social group interactions, involving tail and flipper slapping, and breaching (leaping entirely out of the water) – an impressive feat for whales that weigh up to 100 tonnes!
When migrating they swim, not surprisingly, rather slowly, at 3-5 kilometres per hour.
Why is the bowhead important?Whales are close to the top of the food chain and important indicators of the overall health of the marine environment. The bowhead whale’s conservation status is listed as “least concern” overall, but some populations (such as the East Greenland-Svalbard population) are “endangered”. They have traditionally been hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for oil, meat, and baleen. Today, a few native communities in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland hunt bowheads for subsistence purposes. This subsistence whaling is approved and its sustainability is ensured under the regulatory watch of regional co-management bodies and the International Whaling Commission.
Life under the iceLike the other ice whales (narwhal and beluga), bowheads have no dorsal fin, enabling them to move easily under the sea ice. They typically spend the entire year in Arctic waters, their travels shaped by the melting and freezing of the ice, and seasonal movements to a series of predictable spring-summer productive feeding areas. They have a very thick layer of blubber (up to 40-50 cm), which serves primarily as an energy store to see them through the annual cycle. Bowheads can dive for over 30 minutes at a time.
What do bowheads eat?Bowheads are baleen whales, with about 250-350 keritanous baleen plates on each side of the upper jaw. They use these massive vertical plates – up to 4.6m long in fully-grown individuals, the largest of any whale – to filter their food from the huge open-mouth gulps of water that they take. They need to eat about 100 tonnes of food annually, mainly tiny crustacean zooplankton. Most of their annual feeding occurs in the summer months, and much of that in Canadian waters.
A tragic historyThe bowhead whale has been a victim of the appeal of its long baleen plates and thick blubber, which have made it, and its closest relative the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis and japonica), the most economically valuable whales.
Hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for whale oil and baleen, bowhead whales are today still recovering slowly from their economic extinction. Some populations are faring better as a result, but it will take many more decades for this long-lived and slow reproducing species to recover to its pre-whaling numbers. Inuit in Canada, Greenland and Alaska are allowed a limited subsistence hunt for bowhead whales, sustaining important cultural traditions and values.
Bowheads on the moveThe Canadian and Alaskan governments have attached satellite radio transmitters to a sample of bowhead whales, in order to better understand seasonal movements and habitat use of these Arctic giants.
This information can be used to identify and protect the most important areas used by these whales, and to help plan for further human activities (like shipping and development) in these sensitive, quiet arctic waters – the bowheads’ home – and in all decisions regarding the future of Arctic marine systems facing rapid climate and economic change.
Inuktitut Name: Arviq
Common Names: Bowhead whale, greenland right whale; Baleine de grande baie, baleine du Groenland (Fr); Ballena Boreal, ballena de Groenlandia (Sp)
Status: IUCN: Least concern; Lower Risk/conservation dependent (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea subpopulation); Endangered (Okhotsk Sea subpopulation); Critically Endangered (Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) subpopulation). See the IUCN details.
Population: Approximately 10,000, according to an IWC estimate
Read about all Arctic threats
What WWF is doing
WWF also played a key role in establishing the world’s first bowhead whale sanctuary.
Learn more about WWF’s work in the Arctic.
Shipping and marine mammals
See how shipping routes overlap with the native range for different marine mammals.
Explore the map