Alaska Whales: Gray Whale

Alaska Marine Highway

Alaska's State Flower is the "Forget-Me-Not. Forget me not flowers are very fragrant in the evening and night time, though there is little or no scent in the daytime. They can be annual or perennial plants. Their seeds are found in small, tulip shaped pods along the stem to the flower.

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska. The Beluga, Humpback, Gray, Orca, Bowhead, Blue, Right, and Minke whales.

Gray whales are one of the earth’s most ancient species of mammals, and is estimated to have been on Earth for about 30 million years. There are two geographically isolated stocks: the Korean or western Pacific stock and the California or eastern Pacific stock.

Gray Whales reach lengths of 44 feet, are generally gray in color with white mottling, and have many barnacles and whale lice embedded in their skin. The average weight is 30-40 tons for both sexes. Gray whales have a streamlined body with no dorsal fin but have a prominent dorsal hump about 2/3 of the way down their back, followed by a series of 6 to 12 knobs extending to the tail stock. The upper jaw is narrow and slightly arched, and there are 2-4 grooves on the throat which are about 5 feet long.

They migrate slowly, at about 2-5 miles/hr, and generally blow 3-5 times before fluking up and diving for 2-7 minutes. During this migration they occasionally breach, spy hop, and mate with other Grays. They travel singly or in pods ranging from 2 to 10 whales.

Gray whales feed on small crustaceans such as amphipods, and tube worms found in bottom sediments. To feed, a whale dives to the bottom, rolls on its side and draws bottom sediments and water into its mouth. As it closes its mouth, water and sediments are expelled through the baleen plates, which trap the food on the inside near the tongue to be swallowed.

Gray whales generally live in small groups of about three whales, although groups as large as 16 animals have been observed. While feeding, groups converge and hundreds of whales can be seen in the same area. Feeding dives to the bottom last from 3-15 minutes.

Gray whales are noted for their protective behavior toward their calves. They were called “devil-fish” by Yankee whalers, and Eskimo hunters are wary of them because they sometimes attack boats when their calves are threatened. Gray whales sometimes breach or spy hop, particularly during migration and breeding. During breaching, the whales leap partially out of the water and re-enter on their backs or sides with a large splash which can often be seen several miles away. When spy hopping, the whales raise only their heads out of the water, then slip back below the surface. Breaching is thought to be associated with breeding. The purpose of spy hopping is unknown, although some have suggested that the whales are looking for landmarks along the shoreline.

Gray whales migrate from their winter feeding grounds in Baja California in late February and head up the Pacific coastline past Oregon, Washington, Canada up into Alaska. They have been known to travel 10,000 miles reaching the Bering Sea in May or June. Coastal towns like Ketchikan, Sitka, Seward and Kodiak are popular areas for seeing Gray whales in Alaska. April and May are the primary months for spotting them during their northern migration.

During the summer feeding months they feed in shallow coastal waters less than 200 feet deep. They are the only baleen whales to be bottom feeders. They roll over onto their sides sucking up sediment from the bottom of the sea floor. They eat tube worms, plankton, mollusks and small crustaceans found in the sediment.

Predators of the gray whale are sharks, humans and killer whales. The whales are currently threatened by entanglement in fishing nets, collisions with ships, pollution and noise in the ocean. The population of the eastern north pacific gray whales is estimated at about 26,000 which has been enough of a recovery to take them off the endangered status in 1994. However the western north pacific gray whales are not doing as well with only about 100 animals left. All are now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act while in the oceans surrounding the United States.


a gray whale showing off its tail

gray whale of the coast of Alaska

Alaska Whales:

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska

Learn more about Alaska's whales

beluga whale is now endangered in Alaska nature Alask humpback whale Alaska grey whale
Beluga Humpback Gray Whale
Alaska orca whale also known as a killer whale alaska bowhead whale endangered great blue whale in Alaska waters
Orca Bowhead Blue Whale
endangered right whale in Alaska waters Alaska Minke whale  
Right Whale Minke