© VDOS Global / WWF-Canada

Bowhead whale

This predominantly Arctic species is associated with ice floes. Its movement patterns are therefore influenced by the melting and freezing of the ice. The bowhead has suffered from severe over-exploitation that has seen its range shrink considerably since the 17th century.

Bowhead facts

  • common names
    Bowhead Whale, Greenland Right Whale
  • scientific name
    Balaena mysticetus
  • status
    Least concern, but variation among populations (IUCN)

Threats to bowheads

Industrial development
Bowheads are well known to be very sensitive to acoustic disturbance in the silent depths of the Arctic ocean in which they have evolved. Increased commercial shipping, military activities, and hydrocarbon exploration and development (including seismic projects offshore) present a cocktail of threats.
Climate change

As the rapidly warming Arctic sees thinner and less sea-ice, with longer open water periods in summer, a number of new threats have quickly emerged – more killer whales, and more oil and gas exploration and development, more commercial shipping plans, and more commercial fishing activity.

Past overhunting
Hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for oil, meat, and baleen, bowhead whales are today listed as endangered species in many countries. Some populations are faring better as a result. Native Alaskans and Canadian Inuit are allowed a limited subsistence hunt for bowhead whales from stable populations.

Bowhead tracker

Arctic researchers have attached satellite radio transmitters to a sample of bowheads in order to better understand seasonal movements and habitat use of these whales.

This information can be used to help plan for human activities (like shipping) in these sensitive, quiet Arctic waters – the bowheads' home – and in all decisions regarding the future of Arctic marine systems facing rapid climate and economic change.

How we work

A quieter ocean for Arctic whales

Whales depend on sound to survive. WWF is working to limit sound pollution in Arctic waters by making parts of the ocean important for whales off limits to particularly loud industrial activities.

Getting a new look at bowheads

WWF supported a project to collect rare drone footage of bowhead, one of Canada’s largest and longest-lived marine mammals.

Reducing shipping impacts in Greenland

Increasing demand for Greenlandic resources means ship traffic is likely to grow significantly over the next few decades. WWF advises on the risks and engages communities and governments in discussions about best practices for shipping and marine spatial planning.

Reducing the oil spill risk

WWF has mapped the enormous potential reach of an oil spill in the Barents Sea.

Tools for mariners

WWF has created maps and posters for Canadian ships in the Arctic to help mariners identify and avoid marine mammals.

Tracking bowheads

WWF supports the work of the Norwegian Polar Institute, which is tracking rare bowhead whales near Svalbard.


The Circle 01.2022
The Circle 01.2022
17 January 2022
Canada’s Arctic Marine Atlas
Canada’s Arctic Marine Atlas
17 September 2018
The Circle 03.18
The Circle 03.18
17 July 2018
Greenland Mariners' Guide
Greenland Mariners' Guide
27 September 2017
Marine mammals of Hudson Strait
Marine mammals of Hudson Strait
25 May 2017
Health effects in Arctic wildlife linked to chemical exposures
Health effects in Arctic wildlife linked to chemical exposures
1 June 2016
See all 10 publications

Meet the team


Senior Advisor, Arctic and marine


Senior specialist, Arctic species & ecosystems

WWF Arctic Coordinating Team

Senior Specialist, Arctic species