Arctic visitor!

Well, Cape Cod Bay is in the news again and this time it's because the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) researchers reported a rare sighting: a bowhead whale!  According to CCS observers the whale was skim feeding in a group of right whales. Bowheads, like right whales, are filter feeders and eat zooplankton; Cape Cod Bay is rich with zooplankton at this time of year so this whale found a good place to stock up!

A bowhead whale and calf in the Arctic.
Photo: Corey Accardo (NOAA), Permit No.782-1719 

Bowheads are typically found only in the Arctic, and they are the bigger, beefier cousins of right whales. They can reach 60 ft in length, their blubber is nearly 2 ft thick (to protect them from the icy waters of the Arctic), and they use their massive heads (a third of their body length)  to break through the ice. Their baleen is similar to that of right whales except twice as long, reaching up to 14ft!!  But one of the most amazing things about bowheads is that there is evidence that they live to be well over 100 years old!

Bowheads (left) and right whales (right) are closely related and have similar features, such as rotund bodies, strongly arched jaws, paddle-shaped flippers and smooth, broad flukes. Illustration: Rox Corbett  (Used with permission)

As unusual as this recent sighting is, it's actually not the first time this particular bowhead whale has visited Cape Cod Bay. Based on some unique scarring, CCS has confirmed that this is the same individual photographed by their aerial survey team back in March 2012. Later that year, the Aquarium's Right Whale Team sighted the same bowhead up in the Bay of Fundy! No one reported seeing it in 2013, so where it went in the interim is anyone's guess.

Bowhead whales (top) are larger, Arctic relatives of right whales (bottom). 
Their heads are more strongly arched and they lack the distinctive callosities of right whales.
Bowhead photo:Meagan Moeyaert/NEAQ; Right whale photo: NEAQ

There has been much speculation as to whether this lonely, wandering bowhead  is from the Eastern Arctic population, or whether it could have traversed the Northwest Passage and be from the Western Arctic. At this point we don’t know anything about its origin except that it’s a long way from home.


Learn more! Here are some noteworthy sightings by the research team that weren't right whales:


  1. Fantastic! Where in the bay was this whale sighted. NW in FL

  2. Hi NW,
    The Bowhead was actually seen on two different occasions. On one of these occasions the sighting was off of Race Point, Provincetown.