Alaska Whales: Bowhead Whale

Alaska Marine Highway

Alaska's State Flower is the "Forget-Me-Not. Forget me not flowers are very fragrant in the evening and night time, though there is little or no scent in the daytime. They can be annual or perennial plants. Their seeds are found in small, tulip shaped pods along the stem to the flower.

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska. The Beluga, Humpback, Gray, Orca, Bowhead, Blue, Right, and Minke whales.

Bowhead whales received their name because of their high, arched lower jaw that looks like the archer's bow. They are dark black, brown or gray in color with white spots on their chin and belly. These giant whales use their large triangular shaped heads as a battering ram to break through 2 feet of ice to breathe. Bowhead whales are a member of the baleen whale family, having baleen plates instead of teeth. These baleen plates may reach up to 12 feet making them the largest of any whale species.

The Bowhead whale was designated Alaska's state marine mammal in 1983. Bowheads are making a slow and precarious recovery after being hunted nearly to extinction. The bowhead whale is classified as endangered and has been protected by the International Whaling Commission since 1937. This large whale with thick blubber is still very important to Eskimo subsistence hunters and coastal villages in Alaska. There are an estimated 8,000 bowhead whales in existence today.

Bowhead whales migrate with the seasons. Always close to the edge of the Arctic icepack, bowhead whales follow it south to the Bering Sea in winter and northeast to the Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, in summer. The bowhead is a slow swimmer and usually travels alone or in small herds of up to six. Though it may remain submerged as long as 40 minutes in a single dive, it is not thought to be a deep diver.

Bowhead whales live near pack ice, often in shallow water. Their two-foot layer of blubber protects them from the freezing waters. The southwest Bering Sea is their wintering grounds. In early April and all of May they swim past Saint Lawrence Island through the Chukchi Sea near Kivalina, Point Hope, Wainwright and Barrow Alaska. The migration patterns of the bowhead whale are still being studied. Beluga whales often swim with them as they migrate north to their summer feeding grounds. They quickly dive under the water when they are alarmed. These whales have excellent vision and hearing.

Bowhead whales hold their mouth open as they swim through the water, letting the water flow through the baleen until krill, zooplankton and copepods (a group of small crustaceans) become trapped; then they close their mouth and swallow them. Because of their enormous size, they must eat up to two tons of food each day.

Bowheads were once thought to live 60 to 70 years, similar to other whales. However, discoveries of 19th century ivory, slate, and jade spear points in freshly killed whales in 1993, 1995, 1999, and 2007 triggered research based on structures in the whale's eye, suggesting at least some individuals reached 150–200 years old. Another report claimed a 90 year old female was still fertile. The amino acid racemization process has provided the scientific basis for these claims. This process is controversial and has failed to correlate well with other dating methods. In May 2007, a 50 tonnes (49 long tons; 55 short tons) specimen caught off the Alaskan coast was discovered with the head of an explosive harpoon embedded deep under its neck blubber. The 3.5 inches (89 mm) arrow-shaped projectile was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling center, around 1890, suggesting the animal may have survived a similar hunt more than a century ago.

The bowhead population around Alaska has increased since commercial whaling ceased. Alaska Natives continue to kill small numbers in subsistence hunts each year. This level of killing (25–40 animals annually) is not expected to affect the population's recovery. The population off Alaska's coast , including the "Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock", appears to be recovering and was about 10,500 animals as of 2001. Researchers from the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences have been studying the whales feeding behavior in the Point Barrow area. The status of other populations is less well known.

There were about 1,200 off West Greenland in 2006, while the Svalbard population may only number in the tens. In March, 2008, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans stated that previous estimates in the Eastern Arctic had undercounted, with a new estimate of 14,400 animals (r. 4,800–43,000).

These larger numbers correspond to pre-whaling estimates, indicating this population has fully recovered. However, should climate change substantially shrink sea ice, they could be threatened by increased shipping traffic.


bowhead whales are slow swimmers

bowhead whale breaching in Alaska waters

Alaska Whales:

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska

Learn more about Alaska's whales

beluga whale is now endangered in Alaska nature Alask humpback whale Alaska grey whale
Beluga Humpback Gray Whale
Alaska orca whale also known as a killer whale alaska bowhead whale endangered great blue whale in Alaska waters
Orca Bowhead Blue Whale
endangered right whale in Alaska waters Alaska Minke whale  
Right Whale Minke