Species Profile

Bowhead Whale Eastern Canada-West Greenland population

Scientific Name: Balaena mysticetus
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
Range: Arctic Ocean
Last COSEWIC Assessment: April 2009
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: No schedule, No Status

Individuals of this species may be protected under Schedule 1 under another name; for more information see Schedule 1, the A-Z Species List, or if applicable, the Related Species table below.

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Quick Links: | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Bowhead Whale


The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) is a large baleen whale in the Balaenidae family. Other common names include the Greenland Whale, Greenland Right Whale and Polar Whale. In northern Aboriginal languages, it is known as Arviq or Arvik (Inuktitut and Inuvialuktun), Agkhovik (Inupiat), Akhgvopik (Yupik) and Ittiv (Chukchi). The Bowhead Whale has the a barrel-shaped body and a very large head (about 30% of total body length). Its upper jaw is bowed sharply upward and each side of upper jaw has on average 330 baleen plates up to 427 cm long. The blubber layer is thick, from 5.5 cm on the chin to about 28 cm over the trunk reaching a maximum of 50 cm. The flippers are small and paddle-shaped, and there is no dorsal fin or dorsal hump. Flukes are pointed at the tip. Calves are 4 to 4.5 m long at birth and brownish black in colour while adults are black in colour with white areas near the chin and tail.


Distribution and Population

Bowhead Whales have a nearly circumpolar distribution in the northern hemisphere, with a territory that covers waters between 54° to 85°N latitude. Physical barriers such as land and impassable ice are believed to have divided the world’s bowheads into four populations, two of which occur in Canada: the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea population and the Eastern Arctic – West Greenland population. The Eastern Arctic – West Greenland population was once considered to be made up of two distinct populations (Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Davis Strait-Baffin Bay). The extent of occurrence of the Eastern Arctic – Western Greenland population is roughly one million km² and is considered stable. Bowhead Whales from this population summer in western Baffin Bay, the Canadian High Arctic, northern Foxe Basin, and northwestern Hudson Bay. The fall migration occurs over two to three months starting in late August/September. Wintering occurs in areas with unconsolidated pack ice such as northern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, central Davis Strait, southern Baffin Bay, and off West Greenland. These areas provide shelter and protection from predation.



Bowhead Whales occur in marine waters within areas ranging from open water to thick, unconsolidated pack ice. They break through ice over 20?cm thick with the crown of the head to breathe, and can navigate and communicate under extensive ice fields using their sophisticated acoustic sense.



Bowhead Whales grow and develop slowly, reaching sexual maturity at about 25 years of age. Females grow faster than males and give birth approximately once every three years during the spring migration. Gestation lasts between 12 and 16 months. Lifespan is estimated between 50 and 75 years, with some individuals reaching over 100 years of age. Bowhead Whales feed on crustacean zooplankton such as euphausiids and copepods, which they filter through hair-like material called baleen, by skimming the water under the surface for long periods of time. Epibenthic organisms (mysids and gammariid amphipods) are also consumed. It has been suggested that the annual variability in Bowhead Whale sightings is related to the abundance and distribution of zooplankton.



Commercial whaling was once the greatest threat to the Bowhead Whale and the main reason why the species is at risk in parts of its range. At present, the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) may pose the greatest threat. Other threats may include industrial and manmade underwater noises, net entanglements, collisions with ships, pollution and climate change.



Federal Protection

In Canada, this species is afforded protection under the Fisheries Act, and is currently under consideration for listing as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available online at AquaticSpeciesAtRisk.ca or on the SARA Registry at SaraRegistry.gc.ca.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

5 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

COSEWIC Assessments

  • COSEWIC Assessment - Bowhead Whale (2009)

    The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) (Linnaeus 1758) is a large baleen whale of the family Balaenidae. The body is mainly black with variable white regions on the chin and tail.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Bowhead Whale, Eastern Canada-West Greenland population (2009)

    The population was severely depleted by commercial whaling, starting in the 1500s and continuing until about 1910. Since the early 1900s, it has been subject only to sporadic hunting by Inuit in Canada and Greenland. In the absence of commercial whaling, the population is believed to have been increasing for decades and is likely still increasing. This increase is supported by evidence from both Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) and science. Current total abundance is estimated at around 6000. In spite of the increase, the population is not yet clearly secure because of its life history (e.g. long generation time, very low natural growth rate). Additionally, there is uncertainty about how bowheads will respond to the rapid changes in their habitat due to climate change and increasing human activities such as shipping and oil exploration in high latitudes. Such habitat changes have already begun to occur and will intensify over the next 100 years. In view of the species’ life history, it is important that hunting continue to be monitored and managed to ensure against over-harvest.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2009 (2009)

    2009 Annual Report to the The Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Consultation Documents

  • Bowhead Whale (Eastern Canada/ West Greenland population) Consultations on listing under the Species at Risk Act (2015)

    The Eastern Canada/ West Greenland population of Bowhead Whale has been assessed as “special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Before deciding whether this species will be protected under the Species at Risk Act, Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like your opinion, comments and suggestions regarding the possible ecological, cultural and economic impacts of listing or not listing it. Please provide your input by March 15, 2015. Word version of the questionnaire