Whales are some of the most majestic creatures on earth. Mysterious, graceful, beautiful, and intelligent, they are symbolic of nature’s wonders.
Balaena mysticetus, commonly known as the bowhead whale, is a mammal that lives only in the icy-cold waters of the arctic and near subarctic. The arctic is defined as everything above about 66° north latitude [where the Arctic Circle is currently located – more on that in a future episode]. The bowhead are typically found only between 60° – 75° north latitude.
While there are four or five distinct populations of bowheads located around the Arctic Circle, the largest is called the Western Arctic population. This group lives in the vicinity of Alaska, along the north and west coasts of the 49th state and in the Bering Sea.
Before commercial whaling began, the worldwide population has been estimated to have been more than 50,000 bowheads. Of that number, anywhere from 10,400 to 23,000 are believed to have been in the Western Arctic population. By the end of the era of commercial whaling (about a century ago), the worldwide population stood at fewer than 3,000 bowheads.
The good news is that bowheads are making a comeback. There are currently estimated to be over 16,000 animals in the Western Arctic population. Other populations aren’t doing as well but only one of those, the Okhotsk Sea population, is in danger with only a few hundred survivors of whaling operations.
Bowheads are not the biggest or heaviest of whales (although they rank near the top), but they do have quite a few unique features they can boast about. The most interesting fact is that they use their massive head and thick skull to break through arctic ice to get air. It’s known that they can break ice up to 8 inches thick, although Alaskan Natives, who are legally permitted to hunt whales for subsistence and cultural tradition, have reported seeing bowheads break through up to 2 feet of ice. If you’ve ever fallen while ice skating and hit your head on the ice, you know this is very impressive.
Bowheads are believed to live longer than any other mammal, in excess of two centuries! Scientists attribute that longevity to very slow growth. The whales aren’t fully grown until 25 years old. At maturity, they can be up to 20m (66 feet) in length, with the females being larger than the males. They can weigh up to 90,700kg (100 Tons) which makes bowheads the second heaviest whale. Only the blue whale is heavier.
Hungry? There are two kinds of whales, those with teeth such as killer whales, and those with baleen plates and bristles for capturing edible microorganisms. Bowheads have baleen plates and bristles, and their diet includes krill, copepods, plankton, mysids, and small fish.
With a head that can be 30-40% of it’s body length, the bowhead has the biggest mouth of any animal. Accordingly, it has the longest baleen plates at up to 4m (13feet). To keep warm in it’s arctic habitat it has the thickest blubber, at up to 48cm (19inches), of any whale species.
Bowheads use complex songs to communicate over long distances, including when they’re seeking a mate. (Better than an online dating service). They also use echolocation (a.k.a. biological sonar) to locate food and to find their way through the ice during migration.
More information, and to hear the jazzy sounds of bowhead whales:
With their complex song lists, impressively large features, and extensive portfolio of accomplishments, it’s puzzling why bowheads weren’t the stars of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Instead, the movie featured humpback whales. What was director Leonard Nimoy thinking?
Question of the night: Wouldn’t you rather be a bowhead whale?