Alaska Whales: Humpback 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.

The Humpback Whale is an endangered species, occurring in all the world's oceans. The humpback whale is a baleen whale  that sings amazing songs. It performs complex and cooperative feeding techniques. The humpback has a bulky head with bumpy protuberances (tubercles), each with a bristle. Humpbacks are acrobats of the ocean, breaching and slapping the water.

Humpback Whales live in pods and have 2 blowholes. The name humpback describes the motion it makes as it arches its back out of the water in preparation for a dive. Graceful and magnificent, humpback whales inspire awe in young and old alike. These marine mammals travel great distances to take advantage of the best breeding grounds and feeding spots. North Pacific humpbacks, for example, mate and give birth in Hawaii and then travel to Alaska each summer to feed.

Humpback whales grow to be about 52 feet long, weighing 30-50 tons. The females are slightly larger than males, as with all baleen whales. The four-chambered heart of the average humpback whale weighs about 430 pounds! Humpbacks come in 4 different color schemes, ranging from white to gray to black to mottled. An average-sized humpback whale will eat 4,400-5,500 pounds of plankton, krill and small, schooling fish each day during the feeding season in cold waters.

Humpback whales live at the surface of the ocean, both in the open ocean and shallow coastline waters. When not migrating, they prefer shallow waters. They migrate from warm tropical waters, such as waters off the Florida coast, where they breed and calve to arctic waters where they eat. Found in all the world's oceans, most populations of humpback whales follow a regular migration route, summering in temperate and polar waters for feeding, and wintering in tropical waters for mating and calving.

Humpbacks spend the summer in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Passengers on cruise ships, excursion boats and charter fishing boats may see the whales surfacing and breeching in the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, the Kodiak archipelago and Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords national parks.

During the summer months you will see Humpback whales in the Barren Islands between Homer and Kodiak. June and July are the best months for seeing these enormous whales feeding using bubble-netting. Over 500 whales make Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage their home during the months of summer. Juneau is fortunate to have a healthy humpback whale population every summer, when about 65 whales make their way back to feed in the nutrient-rich waters.

When a humpback whale dives, the tail rises into the air showing a distinct shape and coloration unique to each whale. Using photography, researchers capture this image to identify each whale.

Humpback whales target very small prey compared to their body size.  They filter-feed primarily on small shrimp-like invertebrate (zooplankton, often krill or euphausiids) and small schooling fish such as capelin, herring and sand lance.  They consume about half a ton per day to get their daily requirement of calories. 

Humpback whales have special adaptations that help them to forage efficiently.  A humpback whale’s jaw bones can flex to maximize the volume of seawater engulfed and when coupled with 14-22 expandable pleats along the lower jaw, a whale can engulf up to 15,000 gallons of water. Once they have a large mouthful, they expel the water by straining it through a tightly packed row of about 400  baleen plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw, and trapping their prey.  Each baleen plate is about two feet long, and is fringy on the interior of the mouth to catch the prey, and smooth on the side that faces the outside of the mouth, so the whale can expel the water efficiently.

Most North Pacific humpbacks that spend their time feeding in southeastern Alaska breed and calve in Hawaii with a small proportion migrating to Mexico.  The fastest documented humpback migration from Alaska to Hawaii (2,800 miles) was 36 days.  Whales start to arrive in Hawaii in October, numbers peak in mid February and March and most have left by April. Calves usually arrive with their mothers, presumably born along the way, or are born in Hawaii.  Occasionally a calf from the previous year will travel with the mother to Hawaii, now as a yearling.


alaska humpback whale

the humback whale is spotted off 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