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Published on October 26th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Bowhead Whale: Long-Lived Giants Of The Arctic


Bowhead Whale

A huge dark shape slowly moves underneath the surface of the frigid water. The mammoth mammal breaks the surface and takes in enormous amounts of air in a single breath. This extraordinary creature is unique among animals. The longest living mammal in the world it has seen sights that would astound.

Bowheads are considered to be a species of Right Whale. They are also the second most-massive of all the whales, only the Blue Whale is larger.

Huge Mouths And Thick Skulls

These whales have massive jaws and thick skulls. Their craniums allow them to pierce through substantial layers of ice, up to half a metre or more (two feet). Their colossal jaws allow the bowhead to have the largest mouth of any animal.

The freezing-cold environment of the Arctic waters means that the Bowhead Whale has to have a consolidated  layer of blubber to insulate itself from the chilly waters. Their blubber is thought to be the thickest of all the whales at up to half a metre (two feet) in thickness.

As baleen whales, Bowheads filter their prey through baleen plates (long hair-like structures), which at over three metres in length (ten feet), makes them the longest of all the whales.

Bowhead Whale Comparison With A Person Photo By Chris Huh

The Impact Of Whaling

Whaling has had a devastating impact on the numbers of Bowheads. From an estimated figure of 50,000 before the advent of whaling, the population has now been reduced to half that number.

The fact that these whales swim very slowly, less than six knots, and float after death did not do them any favours. These characteristics are features of the Right Whales and are the reason why people preferred to hunt them.

Nowadays these whales endure a better relationship with people and are only killed by subsistence hunters such as the Inuit.

The Long-Lived Bowhead Whale

One of the most interesting aspects of Bowhead whales is their longevity. It is now believed that Bowheads can live up to 200 years or more. Scientists have based this on the fact that slate and ivory spear heads dating back to the 19th century were found in the 1990’s. This means that they are plenty of Bowhead whales that probably remember the days of 19th century hunting.

Bowhead Whale NOAA

If we could communicate with these creatures imagine what they could tell us? Their lifespans, three-fold that of the average human, are astonishing. Thankfully, our relationship with these friendly giants has improved enormously from the days when they were commercially killed.

Vital Statistics

  • Bowhead Whales can be up to 20 metres in length (65 feet). Females are larger than their male counterparts.
  • They can weigh as much as 100 tonnes.
  • Bowhead Whales are thought to be the longest living of all mammals and scientists believe that they can be over 200 years old.
  • They are found throughout the Arctic.

Recommended Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Whales: Kings Of The Cetaceans, Beluga Whale: The White Melon-headed Creature Of The Cold and Right Whale: Friendly Creatures Of The Oceans for further insight into Whales.

Among Giants: A Life With Whales is the fascinating story of underwater photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin. Full of stunning pictures and insightful commentary about the whales this book is stunning.

You can obtain Among Giants: A Life with Whales here from Amazon.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Among Giants: A Life with Whales from here.
For Canada: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.
For Germany: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.
For France: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

About the Author

3 Responses to Bowhead Whale: Long-Lived Giants Of The Arctic

  1. Pingback: The Right Whale: Friendly Creatures Of The Oceans

  2. Bob Hilscher says:

    Hi there, Arctic bowhead whales are one of the most amazing animals I have had the opportunity to observe, and photograph. For anyone interested, I have posted some of my pictures, and stories, from my three week trip off Baffin Island, filming bowhead whales at:

  3. Yellow Magpie says:

    Those are some wonderful pictures, Bob. They really capture the atmosphere of the island.

    Thanks for sharing!

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