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Northern bottlenose whale

Hyperoodon ampullatus

Naturally friendly and inquisitive, the gentle disposition of northern bottlenose whales has been mercilessly exploited by man.

Targeted by whalers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, over 65,000 northern bottlenose whales lost their lives. Choosing to stay by the sides of wounded companions, whales were easily picked off one by one. Why? To be used for oil and pet food.

Other names:

Bottlehead, North Atlantic bottlenose whale

Beaked whale illustration
Male Female Calf
Maximum length 11.2m 8.7m 3.0m
Maximum weight 7,500kg 7,500kg Unknown

IUCN conservation status: Data Deficient

What do northern bottlenose whales look like?

One of the most well-studied species of whale in the ‘Ziphiidae’ family, northern bottlenose whales are beautiful and robust. Most easily recognized by their large foreheads, they have bulbous melons which are particularly pronounced in older males. Northern bottlenose whales feed primarily on squid and only mature males have two small teeth, which erupt at the front end of the bottom jaw, but are not easily seen. Females also have teeth but they are buried in the jaw and do not erupt as they do in males.

Sporting rich chocolate, olive brown and grey tones on their bodies, their heads become lighter in shade whilst their crescent-shaped dorsal fins are darker. On their undersides, their darker upper bodies are contrasted by pale, creamy flanks and bellies. Blessed with dark, lustrous skins as juveniles, as northern bottlenose whales age their skin becomes lighter and more and more streaked with scars from tussles and bite marks from cookie cutter sharks.

Fanning out from their graceful tails, northern bottlenose whales have broad flukes with concave edges. Alongside their bodies they have small, pointed flippers that help them with maneuverability. A pretty useful technique for dives, these fins can be tucked away into ‘flipper pockets’ on their sides, making them more streamlined.

What is life like for a northern bottlenose whale? 

Northern bottlenose whales are curious individuals, a wonderful trait that has been tragically exploited in the past. Often approaching boats, they are happy to remain in the company of onlookers for some time before carrying on their way again. Fairly acrobatic, they can also lobtail and breach, but only when they feel like it!

Mostly found in pods of between 4 and 20 whales, they have a primarily fission-fusion social structure. That is to say, they are happy to go about doing their own thing before coming back together again, however, long-term relationships have been recorded among northern bottlenose whales including between same-sex individuals.

The estimated population size for northern bottlenose whales is unknown.

What do northern bottlenose whales eat?

Putting their diving skills to the test, the favorite food of northern bottlenose whales is deep-water squid. To retrieve their tasty repasts, these whales can dive to over 1,400m deep and stay submerged for up to a dizzying 2 hours. Most of the time though, a typical dive is much less strenuous and lasts less than 10 minutes. Fish such as herring, prawns, sea cucumbers and starfish may also form part of their diet.

Where do northern bottlenose whales live?

Not thought to be particularly migratory, northern bottlenose whales are found in the cooler waters of the North Atlantic Ocean: from New England all the way to southern Greenland in the west, and from the Strait of Gibraltar right up to Svalbard in the east. Not unusual for some populations to take up residence in a certain area, some groups of northern bottlenose whales have been researched in more detail, for example those in the 'Gully' canyon off Nova Scotia.

A painfully familiar rhetoric, commercial whaling drastically reduced the numbers of northern bottlenose whales. These days, although they are no longer targeted on a large scale, they are still killed in the Faroe Islands when they are butchered for their meat when they strand, usually in August or September on Suðuroy, the southernmost island. Like other beaked whales, they are thought to be negatively affected by loud anthropogenic noise, and it’s not clear whether increased strandings in recent years are related to population increases or anthropogenic factors. As well as this, they are constantly at risk of ingesting plastics and from interactions with fisheries.

Distribution map

Northern bottlenose whale distribution map

Northern bottlenose whales need your help

The main threats...

  • Whaling – northern bottlenose whales are still occasionally taken, such in the Faroe Islands.
  • Pollution – Noise pollution in particular is a threat to deep-diving whales such as the northern bottlenose whale.

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