Whales & Whale Watching

Whales & Whale Watching

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.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whales in Alaska

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.

Distinguishing Features
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

Orca or Killer Whale in Alaska

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.

Distinguishing Features
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 Whale

Beluga Whales in Alaska

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.

Distinguishing Features
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 production.

Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale

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.

Distinguishing Features
Very large head. black with white chin. Plankton eater, skims schools with top of head just above the surface.

Gray Whale

Gray Whale

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.

Distinguishing Features
Black with white spots and blotches. Only large whale with overhanging upper jaw. Sometimes pokes head vertically out of water; also breaches.

Whale Behavior

Gray Whale

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.

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