Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale Sounds (Balaena mysticetus)


Two bowhead whales swimming away from the camera. Photo courtesy of Jill Schoenherr

Bowhead whales are easily distinguished by their enormous head, white chin, and lack of dorsal fin. They have the longest baleen of the baleen whales, growing to more than 4 m (13 ft). Bowhead whales are found in five separate populations in the Arctic Ocean, migrating north and south with the seasonal movement of the edge of the pack ice. Bowhead whales produce a wide variety of vocalizations, ranging from moans at a constant frequency to calls made up of a series of pulses varying in intensity, frequency, duration, and interpulse interval. Most of their calls are simple moans within the 25-900 Hz range, but repetitive moan sequences have also been described as songs. Scientists use the bowhead vocalizations and visual sightings of animals to count the whales during their migration. They have found that estimates of the number of bowhead whales based on only sightings data or only acoustic data are too small. Only by combining the two types of data are scientists able to accurately monitor the bowhead whale populations.

Aerial View of Two Bowhead Whales Swimming. Photo courtesy of Dave Rugh, NOAA, National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Additional Resources


  • Clark, C. W., & Johnson, J. H. (1984). The sounds of the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus , during the spring migrations of 1979 and 1980. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 62(7), 1436–1441.
  • Cummings, W. C., & Holliday, D. V. (1987). Sounds and source levels from bowhead whales off Pt. Barrow, Alaska. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 82(3), 814–821.