Maps: Bowhead Whale: Important Habitat Areas

Bowhead habitat map


Spring migration arrows were previously published by Noongwook et al. 2007.

The shape for Total Subsistence Use Area is partly made up of Cenaliulriit CRSA data that represents all marine mammals collectively.


Whale hunting. Photo credit: Chlaus Lotscher

Central Yup’ik: Arveq

St. Lawrence Island Yupik: Aghvepik

Inupiaq: Agviq

Scientific: Balaena mysticetus

Bowhead hunting happens in fall too if it’s good weather and ice conditions are suitable for going out—late November when the ice is starting to come in. So there are two seasons when we hunt bowheads—spring and fall.9 Elders (after group discussion in Yupik)—Gambell

In spring, bowhead whales follow two paths past St. Lawrence Island. One path goes westward past Kiyalighaq (Southeast Cape), remains offshore of Pugughileq (Southwest Cape), and then is seen again at Gambell (Northwest Cape) heading to the northeast. The other path comes near land to the east of Pugughileq, follows the coast past Southwest Cape, but then turns offshore in a northwestward direction towards the coast of Chukotka…Few whales go past the east end of the island, although the presence of bowhead bones in archeological sites…suggests that at least some whales, at some time of the year, have traveled that way in the past.10 From “Traditional Knowledge of the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska”

Bowhead whale
Bowhead whale. Photo credit: NOAA

Bowhead whales are the only large whales that spend most of their life in or near sea ice. Highly adapted for this life, their blubber can be up to 0.5 meters (1.5 feet) thick and is used for insulation and energy storage. Bowheads use their large heads to break breathing holes in ice up to 0.6 meters (2 feet) thick.11

The migratory routes and timing of the bowhead whale are heavily influenced by ice cover. St. Lawrence Island hunters observing the spring migration report that yearling whales come first, followed by mid-sized whales, and last of all by the largest whales and mothers with calves.12,13 Hunters have noticed a change in the timing of bowhead migration at St. Lawrence Island in recent years. The first whales begin their spring journey past the island about a month earlier than they have historically and they are gone from the island on their way north about a month earlier. Consequently the timing of when the whales show up is harder to predict than in years past.14  During fall migration, the whales return to St. Lawrence Island from the north in the opposite order (large whales first, followed by smaller ones).15

Bowhead whales feed at all depths, from the surface to the ocean floor. They feed predominately on tiny crustaceans, including copepods, amphipods and krill that are filtered through baleen plates in the mouth of the whale.16

Some bowhead whales are thought to live 150-200 years. This estimate is reinforced by the discovery of ivory and stone harpoon tips – not used since the 1800s – imbedded in whales harvested in recent years by Alaska Natives.17,18,19

Indigenous whaling is carried out through a co-management agreement between the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service, with oversight by the International Whaling Commission.

Other Important Whale Habitats:
Bowhead Whale
Beluga Whale

Last Updated: 
Tue, 01/12/2016