Once hunted for oil and bone, today the
whales of the northwest coast are recongnized as being unusually intelligent, gentle creatures.
The most common whales you are likely to see in
Alaska are orcas, or killer whales and humpbacks. From a distance whales can be
spotted by the distinctive white spout, as they exhale when surfacing.
||The humpback whale is one of the world's most endangered species of whales. They're known to surface and breech throughout the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay, and are able to stay underwater for up to 30 minutes. The humpback can live up to 95 years, and consumes between 2,000 and 9,000 pounds of fish and krill a day. They are typically 30 to 50 feet long and weight up to 40 tons. They can be seen in the waters off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia in the summer and spend winters in warm waters.
Black with white throat and belly, long tail flipper with irregular edges. Knobs on heads and flippers. Likes to breach, or jump dramatically.
Orca or Killer Whale
||Easily recognized by their tall black
tails, orcas are seen throughout the Alaska cruise area. The best
place to look for them are in western Johnstone Strait, where they seem to
congregate to feed on salmon in the summer, and Lynn Canal, between Juneau and Skagway. Orcas travel in family groups called pods. They can be aggressive feeders, often almost beaching themselves as they chase young seals or other prey into shallow water.
Bold black and white markings, dramatic tall dorsal
fin, especially on the male. Like humpbacks, they are easily seen at a
distance by the
white vapor as they surface, but are distinguished by their distinctive tall fins.
||Beluga whales are known as "sea
canaries" because of their many vocalizations. Belugas are found in small
groups called pods and are led by a male. Large numbers of belugas can be found
in areas of abundant prey and at times of migration. Not all belugas
will migrate, some remain in one area year-round. They are agile animals and are able to
swim backwards! These small whales (to 20') are usually found along the shores of the
Bering Sea and Arctic Oceans. However, they frequently stray as far south as Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm during the summer, and can often be seen chasing schools of salmon.
Adult beluga whales are creamy white in color. When a
beluga whale is born it is dark gray or bluish/brown gray in color and slowly
changes to the creamy white found in adults at about five years. Their snout is
very short and they do not have a dorsal fin. Rather, beluga whales have a low
dorsal ridge. Beluga whales have a large rounded structure on the top of their
heads (called a melon) that focuses sound waves for echolocation and sound
This robust and powerful baleen whale measures up to 60 feet in length and
weighs about one ton per foot. When it
surfaces to breathe a V-shaped spout issues from twin blowholes at the peak of
its massive head, a head that is powerful enough to break through a foot of sea
ice. Bowheads spend their lives near sea ice margins. The bowhead whale migration is an annual spring event when the whales begin
their migration up through the Chukchi Sea and into the Beaufort Sea for the
summer. They pass by Barrow in late April through May as they travel in three
pulses or "three schools" as the Inupiat whalers put it. This is when the
Inupiat conduct their spring subsistence hunt for bowheads as the whales pass by
Alaska's North Slope.
Very large head. black with white chin. Plankton eater, skims schools with top of head just above the surface.
The gray whale is a baleen whale (it is a filter feeder). Whalers used to call
them "devilfish" because of their fierce defense they put up when hunted. Gray whales congregated in small pods of about 3 whales, but the pod may have as
many as 16 members. Large groups (up to hundreds of whales) form in feeding
waters, but these are loose, temporary associations. They do not form long-term
bonds. Gray whales are very agile swimmers. Gray whales can dive for up to 30 minutes
and go 500 feet (155 m) deep. They can swim in even relatively shallow water
without running aground. They also breach, jumping partially out of the
water and falling back at an angle, splashing and making a loud noise. This may
help clean off some of the encrustations of parasites (barnacles and whale lice)
or in communicating with other gray whales. Spyhopping is another
gray whale activity in which the whale pokes its head up to 10 feet (3 m) out of
the water, turning around slowly, to take a look around.
Black with white spots and blotches. Only large whale with overhanging upper jaw. Sometimes pokes head vertically out of water; also breaches.
Breaching, lunging and porpoising
A breach or a lunge is a leap out of the water. The act of leaping
generates more power than any other act performed by a non-human animal. The
distinction between the two is fairly arbitrary. Cetacean researcher Hal
Whitehead chooses to define a breach as any leap in which 40% of the animal's
body clears the water, and a lunge as a leap with less than 40% clearance. More
qualitatively, a breach is a genuine jump with an intent to clear the water as
much as possible, whereas a lunge is the result of a fast upward sloping swim,
perhaps as a result of feeding, that has caused the whale to clear the surface
of the water by accident.
Spyhopping is the act of coming out of the water vertically and
momentarily staying out of the water in a manner akin to a human treading water. A
powerful individual can spyhop as much as half of its body out of the water. The
reasons for spyhopping are likely to be similar to those of breaching. Further
spyhops may well be used so that the whale can examine its surroundings above
the surface for instance to look at boats.
For this a spyhop may be more useful than a breach, because the view is held
steady for longer.
Lobtailing and slapping
Lobtailing is the act of a whale or dolphin lifting their tail fluke out of the water and then bringing it
down onto the surface of the water hard and fast in order to make a loud slap.
Similarly, species with large flippers
may also slap them against the water. Large whales tend to lobtail by positioning themselves vertically downwards into
the water and then slapping the surface by bending the tail stock.