Unless you spend time around Arctic or sub-Arctic waters, you will likely never see a bowhead whale but it's remarkably similar to the North Atlantic right whale. In fact, they are all in the same family, Balaenidae. The two genera in this family are Eubalaena which include the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern right whales, and the Balaena which consist of the bowheads. The size, and body shapes of all in this family are remarkably similar. They do not have throat grooves, lack a dorsal fin, and also produce a v-shaped blow like the right whale.
There are, however, some interesting differences between bowheads and right whales. Notably, bowheads are closely associated with sea ice, and they avoid their only known predators, killer whales and humans, by retreating under ice. Amazingly, thanks to the heavy bone structure of their skulls, they are able to break holes through ice that is 2 feet thick! There are many superlatives that can be applied to the bowhead: they have the largest mouth and head in the animal kingdom (about one third of their body length); their baleen plates are the longest of any whale (up to 14 ft long and 12 ft wide); and they may well be the longest lived mammal on Earth, with some individuals reaching 150 - 200 years in age! Despite these unique characteristics, the commonalities between bowhead and right whales is remarkable and I feel privileged to observe both species. No doubt, this summer I will find myself momentarily stunned by some Arctic sunshine, and will again slip up and call out 'right whale' when I mean to stay 'bowhead'.
Photo credit: Gary Miller, collected under NMFS permit SRP 518.