The Bowhead is a baleen whale that is mainly blue-black in colour, with a very large head, great mouth, and large lips. This species has the longest baleen (keratinous plates in place of teeth) of any living whale – up to 4 m in length. There are cream-coloured blotches on the lower part of the jaw, white blotches on the belly, and a pale grey area on the tail. These whales can attain a length of 20 m; females are larger than males. The blubber on these whales is very thick and can measure up to 45 cm deep. At birth, a calf measures 4 m in length.
In Canada, the Bowhead Whale was historically found in the western Arctic, in the area of the Beaufort Sea, and in the eastern Arctic in the areas of Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay. It prefers the environments of bays, straits and estuaries. It is always found near the ice edge, migrating north and south as the ice retreats or expands.
Today the western population of the Bowhead is found in the Beaufort Sea/Arctic Ocean area, primarily along the south and west coasts of Banks Island, in the Amundsen Gulf, near the Baillie Islands, and along western Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. In the eastern Arctic, Bowheads are present off southeastern Baffin Island and towards the Greenland side of Davis Strait during the winter and early spring; as the ice breaks up, some move westward to northwest of Baffin Island and some move along the east coast of Baffin Island.
These important calving sites need to be protected in order to ensure the survival of the Bowhead Whale. Nature Canada was a leading advocate for a stronger national wildlife area (NWA) system that included this important whale habitat. In 2008, critical whale habitat was protected with the establishment of three NWAs in Nunavut. Now we’re fighting to ensure there is continued stewardship of these protected areas, and that the whale is fully protected under endangered species legislation.
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There are also Bowheads in Hudson Strait from fall to spring, and in the waters between northwestern Hudson Bay and northern Foxe Basin during the summer. The International Whaling Commission's 1991 estimate of the size of the western population of the Bowhead Whale was 7,500 whales, compared with an estimated 14,000-20,000 whales prior to commercial whaling. The eastern Arctic stock is even more seriously depleted: only about 250 whales remained in the Baffin Island area in 1991, compared with at least 11,000 in the early 1800s. The number of Bowheads in the Hudson Bay area is thought to have been much less in 1991 than in 1860, when at least 500-600 whales summered there. Throughout the range of the species, the total population in 1991 was probably less than 10,000 whales, or about 15% of the pre-whaling abundance.
Very little is known about the reproduction of the Bowhead Whale. It is thought that Bowheads give birth every three or more years, that effective mating takes place mainly in late winter, and that most calves are born in the spring. Bowheads are slow swimmers, which made them more vulnerable to hunting. Feeding Bowheads commonly dive for 30 minutes, with dives separated by short periods spent near the surface, blowing air. At other times they are very active on the surface, slapping the water with their flippers, raising their flukes, and leaping high to fall back with a large splash.
Bowheads are among the more vocal of baleen whales. Groups of up to 15 individuals, scattered over an area of 10-20 km2, probably maintain acoustic contact with one another during migration. They may also use the reverberations of their calls off the undersides of an ice floe to help them judge its dimensions.
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Bowheads feed almost entirely on small invertebrate animals that occur in dense swarms, concentrating on organisms with very high energy content, such as copepods and euphausiids. Bowheads avoid or escape predation from Killer Whales either by sheltering in an ice-infested area, since they are much more maneuverable around heavy ice than Killer Whales are, or by heading for shallow water.
The severe depletion of the Bowhead stock by whalers is the main reason why this species is now endangered throughout the world. These whales are still harvested in Alaska. It is possible that climatic factors which influence ice conditions may also affect both the survival and the distribution of Bowhead Whales. Offshore developments in the Beaufort Sea may be an additional problem: both the traffic and the noise associated with such developments can adversely affect whale populations.
Of particular concern to Nature Canada is the potential impact of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline. Many Bowhead Whales call the mouth of the Mackenzie Basin home, making them at particular risk to the effluent flowing from the project and from the environmental and climatic impact to the entire area.
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The Mackenzie Gas Project, likely to cost at least CDN $16 billion, includes three major natural gas production fields north of Inuvik and two underground natural gas pipelines (the longest is 1,220 km) to carry the gas south along the Mackenzie Valley to northern Alberta. Other pipelines would be built connecting other gas fields to the main pipelines.
If it proceeds, this mega-project will trigger the transformation of the Mackenzie Valley from largely intact wilderness to industrial landscape. The environmental impact would be massive.
Nature Canada has provided expert testimony to the Joint Review Panel assessing the merits of the pipeline project, made a strong public case for establishing protected areas in advance of any development in Canada’s North, and continues to strongly oppose the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project unless environmental concerns are addressed.