© VDOS Global / WWF-Canada Bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada.


Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) spend the entire year in Arctic waters. The species has been a victim of commercial whaling in the past and it will take many decades for their populations to recover.

About Bowhead Whales

One of just three year-round native Arctic whale species, bowheads are famous for their massive bow-shaped heads that make up about a third of their length. They’re perfectly designed for one of the bowheads’ main challenges: breaking through sea ice more than 20 centimetres thick to breathe. Bowheads are also known for their intense bouts of social group interactions, involving tail and flipper slapping and out-of-water breaching — an impressive feat for whales that weigh up to 100 tonnes! When migrating, they swim (not surprisingly) rather slowly, at three to five kilometres per hour.

Bowheads are baleen whales, with about 250-350 keratinous baleen plates on each side of the upper jaw. They use these massive vertical plates to filter their food from the huge gulps of water they take in. Bowheads need to eat about 100 tonnes of food annually. There are approximately 10,000 bowhead whales currently spread across three geographic regions. Ninety per cent of these whales can be found summering in the eastern and western regions of Canada’s Arctic.

Bowhead Whale Facts

Bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada.

Bowhead Whale

Special Concern

Scientific Name:

Balaena mysticetus

Inuktitut Name:



Special Concern

Special Concern A wildlife species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats. See the IUCN details.


Up to 100 tonnes


Up to 20 meters


Approximately 10,000


Shallow waters around pack ice


North of Europe, between Canada and Greenland, Hudson Bay, Okhotsk Sea and the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas



Did You Know?

Bowhead whales can live to be up to 200 years old, making them the longest living wild mammals on the planet.

Distribution and movement patterns of bowhead whales in the Arctic

Distribution and movement patterns of bowhead whales in the Arctic

Why Are Bowhead Whales Important?

Whales are close to the top of the food chain and are important indicators of the overall health of the marine environment. In Canada, the bowhead whale is listed as “special concern”. They are currently recovering from years of over exploitation by commercial whalers.

Today, Inuit communities in Canada, Alaska and Greenland hunt bowheads for subsistence purposes. This subsistence harvest is sustainable and monitored by wildlife management groups across Canada.

© VDOS Global / WWF-Canada Bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada.


Up until the last century, the commercial appeal of the bowhead whales’ long baleen plates and thick blubber have made these whales — and its closest relative, the right whale — the most economically valuable animals for commercial whale hunters.

Bowhead whales are still recovering from severe over-hunting that started as early as the 16th century and ended only when populations crashed to near extinction. It will take many more decades for this long-lived and slow-reproducing species to recover to pre-whaling numbers, though signs are encouraging.

Modern threats to bowheads include sea ice retreat and changes to food web dynamics due to rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Bowheads are also threatened by other human activities, including oil and gas exploration, commercial shipping and fishing. As a large, slow-moving whale, bowheads are vulnerable to ship strikes as Arctic shipping increases.

What WWF-Canada is Doing

WWF is working to identify and secure protection for critical bowhead whale habitat, as well as addressing the risks of increasing Arctic development and rapid climate change. WWF played a key role in establishing the world’s first bowhead whale sanctuary, the Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area in Nunavut in 2009.

WWF has also contributed to multi-year studies aimed at the conservation of bowhead whales, including using drones to identify individual whales  and quantify the threats of underwater noise. The information from these studies is used to monitor populations, predict impacts of increased industrial development, and identify and protect key areas used by the whales to ensure calm Arctic waters.

© VDOS Global _ WWF-Canada Bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada.

What You Can Do

It will take a dedicated effort to help bowhead whales recover to pre-whaling numbers. Your donation can help WWF-Canada protect critical habitat for bowhead Whales.