Bowhead Whale


  • Status
    Least Concern
  • Population
    Approximately 10,000
  • Scientific Name
    Balaena mysticetus
  • Weight
    75-100 tons
  • Length
    Average of 50 - 60 feet
  • Habitats

This predominantly Arctic species is associated with ice floes. Its movement patterns are therefore influenced by the melting and freezing of the ice.

Bowhead whales are capable of breaking through sea ice at least seven inches thick with their large skulls and powerful bodies.

Adult bowheads are entirely black except the front part of the lower jaw which is white and prominently upturned. They can grow up to 60 feet long while still being able to leap entirely out of water. Bowheads filter their food through baleen by opening their mouths and straining plankton from the surface, the water column, or the sea floor.

Data has shown that bowhead whales may be among the longest-lived animals on earth. Based on the recovery of stone harpoon tips in their blubber, and from analysis of eye tissue, scientists believe that the life-span of bowhead whales can be over 200 years.

Here's how satellite data is helping to protect whales

Despite improved policies to protect these animals in recent decades, whales increasingly face warmer waters and the impacts of global trade.
A baby humpback whale glides along its mother's back underwater

Why They Matter

  • Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. The bowhead whale’s conservation status is listed as “least concern” overall, but some populations (such as near Greenland) are endangered. They have traditionally been hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for oil, meat, and baleen.  Today, native communities in both the U.S. and Russia hunt bowheads for subsistence purposes. This subsistence whaling is approved and its sustainability is ensured by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).


  • Population Approximately 10,000
  • Extinction Risk Least Concern
    1. EX

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Bow head whale threats

Ancient bowhead whale skeleton from commercial whaling operations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Bowheads have suffered from hunting by commercial whalers until the last century for oil, meat, and baleen. Some populations are faring better as a result of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)’s commercial whaling moratorium. Like other large whales, bowhead whales are threatened by habitat loss, toxics and climate change, as well as offshore oil and gas exploration and increased shipping in Arctic waters.

What WWF Is Doing

Habitat Protection

Since the 1980s, WWF has worked with the community of Clyde River in Northeast Baffin Island, Canada to help document and protect a critical feeding area for bowhead whales. In 2009, a bowhead whale sanctuary (a place where commercial whaling is prohibited), was created in Isabella Bay close to Clyde River.

Improving Whale Protection

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the body charged with regulating whaling and addressing the vast number of other threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises in our oceans such as shipping, climate change, and bycatch. WWF works to make the IWC more effective in reducing threats to whales. In addition, WWF is working to minimize ocean noise pollution from offshore oil and gas exploration and increased Arctic shipping.


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