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Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

All text on this page is copyright protected: © 2014 Kelvin Aitken.
All rights reserved. Students may use this information for personal research only. Not for commercial use.

Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
Genus: Balaena
Species: mysticetus
Taxonomic name: Balaena mysticetus
Other Common Names: Black Right Whale, Greenland Whale, Great Polar Whale, Greenland Right Whale.

Bowhead Whales are part of the Balaenidae family of Right Whales. Mature females are larger than males topping the scales at 75-100 tonnes and growing to 20 meters though most do not exceed 18.5 meters. Calves are born at 3-4.5 meters in spring or early summer.

Little is known of the Bowhead Whale due to is low numbers caused by past whaling activity and their remote arctic feeding grounds. Bowheads are only found in the northern hemisphere following the seasonal expansion and contraction of sea ice where they feed on various types of zooplankton using a trawling method, cruising along with the mouth open. They feed both in the open and under the sea ice shelf staying submerged in shallow dives for 20-40 minutes. They have the longest baleen of any whale growing to 4 meters long.

Bowhead Whales have no dorsal fin, no throat pleats, no barnacles and no callosities or other obvious markings except for a large white to pale grey bib of pigmentation on the chin, lower jaw and throat. The edge of this patch may have a pattern of dark spots. They are generally black, even on the underside of the tail, though some individuals may be brownish or dark grey. Their most obvious feature when observed from above water is a raised hump housing their twin blowholes. This enables the Bowhead to breath through holes in the ice and at times is used to break thin ice to form a breathing hole. They are often seen breathing from splits in the sea ice or in polynyas (breaks in the sea ice found well in from the floe edge). Their common name comes from the strongly arched mouth with the lower jaw overlapping the curved upper lip. The head is about 1/3 of the total body length.

Bowheads are slow moving animals, as are all Right Whales, raising their broad, black sculptured flukes prior to diving. They are sometimes seen to breach, slap their pectoral fins or tail-lob but are usually not noted for their surface activity. While they sometimes occur in large groups they are usually solitary or in groups of three or four.

Although Bowhead Whales are considered endangered there still exists hunting activity in the form of subsistence whaling among Inuit groups in northern Alaska.


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