Bowhead Whale

Dinner for the Eskimo – the Bowhead Whale

Bowhead whales get their name because about a third of their length of 15-18 meters (49- 59 feet) is taken up by a large skull. Bowheads also have a noticeable upturned lower jaw. A big bowhead would be 19.8 meters (65 feet) and weigh over 100,000 kilograms (110 tons). Adult bowheads are black with white on the front of the lower jaw. Large white spots are on a bowhead’s belly, and the beginning of the tail is grey.

A bowhead whale can live to be over 200 years old. That makes them the longest living mammal in the world. Bowheads have amazing power. They can jump entirely out of the water while breaching. They can easily break ice that’s 20 centimeters (8 inches) thick and Inuit Eskimo hunters of Alaska witness bowheads punching holes in 60 centimeters (2 feet) of sea ice. Some bowheads have been known to dive for a whole hour. They can go as far as 150 meters (500 feet) deep.

Bowheads are baleen whales. The baleen in a bowhead consists of two rows with over 300 vertical plates that span 300-450 centimeters (10-15 feet), giving the bowhead the largest baleen of all whales. Copepods, teardrop-shaped crustaceans sized at 1-2 millimeters (0.04 to 0.08 inches) long, and euphausiids, small shrimp-like animals also called krill, are the main sources of a bowhead whale’s diet. One bowhead whale eats approximately 100 tons of these animals every year.

Bowhead whales congregate in the fall-time of the year wherever these zooplankton are plentiful. They are one of three whale species that stay in the Arctic throughout the year. Bowhead calves are born every three to six years in April, May or June. Six months to a year later, the calves are weaned. A solitary life is preferred by a bowhead, though they can group up into pods of twos and threes.

Thick blubber keeps bowhead whales warm in cold arctic waters. The fact that bowhead whales hold vast quantities of fat and have long baleen bones that were made into corsets and hoops in women’s dresses helped to put them on the endangered species list after they were hunted to near extinction during the last century.

Today, Canadian Inuits and the Inupiaq Eskimo Native Alaskans can subsistence hunt bowheads in limited numbers, since this whale was a main source of food for their cultures for at least 2,000 years. Today, an estimated 10,000 bowhead whales live in the Arctic.