Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)


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Northern bottlenose whales are the largest members of the beaked whale family (Ziphiidae) in the North Atlantic Ocean. As adults, northern bottlenose whales can reach lengths of approximately 32 feet (9.8 m) and weigh up to 17,000 pounds (7,500 kg). Males may be slightly larger than females.

Northern bottlenose whales have a large, long, robust body with a small, triangular, “falcate” “dorsal” fin that is located about two-thirds down their back. Their head has a distinctive bulbous “melon” and a well-defined bottle-shaped beak; however, these characteristics may vary with sex and age. The lighter-colored melon and forehead become steeper and flatter as the whale ages. Adult males have a pair of relatively small, conical yet visible teeth that angle slightly forward, located on the tip of the lower jaw. While at the ocean surface, these cetaceans produce fairly small, bushy blows every 30-40 seconds that are about 3.3 feet (1 m) tall and visible from a significant distance. Their coloration varies from dark gray to brownish to olive, and their skin may appear lightly mottled and covered with scars and/or other markings. The dorsal side is darker than the ventral side, giving it a counter-shading appearance.

Many species of beaked whales (especially those in the genus Mesoplodon) are very difficult to distinguish (even when dead). At sea, they are challenging to observe and identify to the species level due to their cryptic, skittish behavior, a low profile, and a small, inconspicuous blow at the waters surface; therefore, much of the available characterization for beaked whales is to genus level only. Uncertainty regarding species identification of beaked whales often exists because of a lack of easily discernable or distinct physical characteristics.

Northern bottlenose whales are usually found individually or in social groups averaging between 4-10 individuals, but have been occasionally seen in larger groups and loose aggregations of up to 50 animals. Groups may consist of various combinations and/or be segregated depending on age, sex, or life stage. Males are known to be combative with each other, using their large heads to “butt” one another (Jefferson et al.2008).

Regular dives of Northern bottlenose whales range from 10-60 minutes, commonly reaching depths of at least 2,600-5,000 feet (800-1,500 m), but they are likely capable of diving and holding their breath for up to 2 hours. While diving, they feed near the ocean bottom mostly on deep-sea cephalopods (e.g., squid), fish, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and sea stars. Juvenile animals may feed on prey closer to the surface.

This species is classified as DATE INCOMPLETE according to the IUCN's Red List.
This species is classified as DATE INCOMPLETE according to the IUCN’s Red List.

Northern bottlenose whales reach sexual maturity between 7-11 years. A sexually mature female will give birth to a single calf every two or more years during the spring or summer (usually between the months of April and August) after a gestation period of about 12 months. Newborn calves are about 10-11.5 feet (3-3.5 m) in length and weigh 660 pounds (300 kg). These whales have an estimated lifespan of at least 37 years.


MMPA – Northern bottlenose whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the MMPA.
CITES Appendix I – throughout its range

Species Description

up to 17,000 pounds (7,500 kg)
about 32 feet (9.8 m)
large, long, robust body that is dark gray, brownish, or olive with a distinctive bulbous“melon” shaped head
at least 37 years
deep-sea cephalopods (e.g., squid), fish, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and sea stars
found individually or in small social groups averaging between of about 4-10 individuals, occasionally up to 50 animals; dives up to 10-60 minutes, reaching depths of up to 5,000 feet (1,500 m)

RELATIVE SPECIES: Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s Beaked whales

NEIGHBORING SPECIES: Sperm whale, blue, fin, sei, minke, humpback

THREATS: Protected from whaling, but are impacted by oil and gas development.

DIET: Mainly squid. Herring, deep-sea fish, shrimp, sea cucumbers and stars.

MANNER OF FEEDING: Bottom foragers

BEHAVIOR: Travel in pods of 4, usually same age and gender. Will swim around slow moving or stationary vessels. Swim at the surface at high speeds in random directions, very erratic. Will often stay with wounded members of the pod. Males will often fight by headbutting one another,

REPRODUCTION: Become sexually mature at 7-11 years. Gestation is 12 months. Females give birth every 2-3 years

LIFE SPAN: At least 37 years


Northern bottlenose whales prefer cold, deep, temperate to sub-arctic oceanic waters usually greater than 6,500 feet (2,000 m). This species is often associated with steep underwater geologic structures such as submarine canyons, seamounts, and continental slopes.


Northern bottlenose whales occur throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and range from New England, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, England, and Europe up to Spitzbergen and down to the Azores and northern Africa (Canary Islands). They have been sighted from 30° North to close to the ice edge in the Arctic. Long-term studies of a resident group off of Nova Scotia have been conducted. Strandings of this species have occurred in the Baltic Sea, Bay of Fundy, and Rhode Island. This species is capable of traveling distances of more than 600 miles (1,000 km).

Population Trends

The most recent stock assessment reports with population estimates are available on our website.



  • whaling
    After the discovery of “spermaceti” in bottlenose whales, a commercial whaling fishery developed in the 1800s-1900s and more than 80,000 were killed. Whalers exploited the curiosity and social bonds of these animals; whales were often attracted to stationary vessels and stayed with wounded or injured members of their pod. For the last several decades, they have remained unexploited, with the exception of a few animals killed in the Faroe Islands drive fishery.
  • hunting
    In Canada and Norway, these whales were hunted for meat and oil until the population was depleted.


  • underwater sounds and anthopogenic noise
    Deep-diving cetaceans like northern bottlenose beaked whales use sound to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean.

Regulatory Overview

This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Ziphiidae
Genus: Hyperoodon
Species: ampullatus


  • Reeves, R. R., P. A. Folkens, et al. (2002). Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. p. 268-271.
  • Jefferson, T. A, M. A. Webber, and R. L. Pitman. (2008). Marine Mammals of the World, A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Amsterdam, Elsevier. p. 93-95.


  • The scientific name (Hyperoodon ampullatus) is derived from the Latin word ampulla for the “bottle” – shape of the beak.
  • Northern bottlenose whales are the most extensively studied of the beaked whales because the whaling industry made carcasses available for scientists to examine.
  • Northern bottlenose whales are very curious and often attracted to ships, which made them easy targets for whalers long ago.
  • Northern bottlenose whales are the most extensively studied of the beaked whales because the whaling industry made carcasses available for scientists to examine. Can dive up to 2 hours.
  • Males are identified by a white head.
  • They used to be widely hunted for their spermaceti (waxy substance found in the head used for cosmetics).