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5 Icebreakers About Bowhead Whales

Conversation starters about an Arctic whale.

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Bowhead whale with calf by its side swim between floating Arctic sea ice.
Bowhead whale and calf. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

1) Bowhead Whales Are Highly Adapted to the Arctic

They have thick blubber to insulate their bodies from the cold temperatures. They have no difficulties with thermoregulation and their skulls are so tough that they break through 2 feet of solid ice to reach the surface. The Western Arctic population lives within the waters of the United States, off the coast of Alaska, in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas.

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Aerial photo of bowhead whale concentration in Beaufort Sea.
Bowhead whales observed in a feeding aggregation totaling 31 whales sighted approximately 60 km east of Point Barrow, Alaska, North Slope Borough Autumn Aerial Surveys Flight 14, on 15 October 2020. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

2) Bowhead Whales are Baleen Whales

Bowhead whales use keratinous filters to strain krill from the water. In fact, they possess the longest baleen plates of any baleen whale species! In 2020, we observed bowhead whales feeding in “krill traps.” These occur when swarms of krill concentrate in the shallow waters of the continental shelf by winds and currents.

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Bowhead Whale in the Arctic. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

3) Bowhead Whales Are Important for Subsistence-based Communities

The bowhead whale is a critical nutritional, cultural, and spiritual resource for Indigenous subsistence-based communities in Alaska. Subsistence-based communities will use all parts of the whale for food, crafts, and building materials. Many Indigenous Arctic communities have hunted whales for thousands of years and have cultural traditions based around whale hunts. Scientists rely heavily on the knowledge of these communities to better understand this species given their historic contact.

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Photo of five bowhead whales at waters surface.
Bowhead whales. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries. Funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

4) Bowhead Whales Have Longer Lifespans than Humans

They reach adulthood and their full size around 25 years. Studies on recovered harpoon tips and individual whales have estimated that these whales may be capable of living well beyond 100 years!

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Photo of a bowhead whale in the Beaufort Sea.
One bowhead whale sighted in a feeding aggregation approximately 15 km north of the mouth of Smith Bay, Alaska, North Slope Borough Autumn Aerial Surveys Flight 1, 17 September 2020. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

5) Bowhead Whales Rely on Sound to Survive

Bowhead whale survival relies on the ability to hear each other and the sounds in their environment. They are a highly vocal whale species and have a vast repertoire of songs and calls. Bowhead whales are “two-voiced” and can sing at both high and low frequencies at the same time. Taking full advantage of their huge vocal range, they are capable of also making impulsive “gunshot” like sounds. Scientists believe some of their variety of vocalizations are likely used similar to sonar to determine the location of sea ice during navigation.

Insight

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