With more coastline than any other U.S. state, Alaska is full of opportunities to see marine creatures in their native habitats. Once you’ve witnessed the gigantic fluke of a whale cresting the surf, you’ll be fascinated by the many species it is possible to view off of the stunningly rugged coast. Where to start? Let us introduce you.
North Pacific Bottlenose Whale
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by dan(iel)
Scientific Name: Berardius bairdii
Identification: North Pacific Bottlenose whales are large – the males can be up to 39 feet long, which makes them second only to the sperm whale in size among toothed whales. They are gray, but from the top appear a deep blue. They have rounded foreheads, and the skin of the male whales is often deeply scarred from past battles with other males over territory. These whales are fighters!
Where Found: Off the coast of the remote Aleutian islands.
Social Patterns: The North Pacific Bottlenose travel in small groups of 2 or 3 whales and feed on squid and small fish.
Cool Facts: When fishing for their dinners, Pacific Bottlenose whales can make dives of over 3000 feet, often not emerging again for up to an hour.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Mike Johnston
Scientific Name: Delphinapterus leucas
Identification: The famous beluga whale turns a striking white color as it ages, and is smaller than many of the other Alaskan whales. Adult belugas are generally 12-14 feet long, and have friendly-looking, curved faces.
Where Found: The Cook Inlet near Kenai Fjords National Park. The population of belugas here has been threatened, and efforts are being made to protect the rare species from further decline.
Social Patterns: Belugas are social and speak to their small traveling groups with a series of clicks and other odd noises. They can even mimic sounds! For meals, belugas prefer a diet of crustaceans, worms, and fish.
Cool Facts: The beluga whale is a close relative of the elusive “narwhal,” or unicorn whale. It can turn its neck in all directions, even behind it.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Biodiversity Heritage Library
Scientific Name: Balaena mysticetus
Identification: Bowhead Whales are a perfect example of something “whale-sized.” They can grow to lengths of 65 feet and weigh up to 150,000 pounds! Their gigantic heads make up a third of their total length, and they use it to break the Arctic ice to breathe.
Where Found: Bowhead Whales live their whole lives in the waters of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.
Social Patterns: Using baleen, bowhead whales consume zooplankton for nourishment. The whales use calls to navigate the icy waters of their home and to stay connected with one another even when miles apart.
Cool Facts: Limited hunting of Alaska’s Bowhead Whales is permitted under the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Talk about thick skins – the bowhead’s protective layer of blubber and skin is the thickest of any animal in the world. The points of harpoons, which were used to hunt whales, have been discovered in the skin of bowhead whales in the present…meaning that these huge creatures live for over 100 years.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by dfaulder
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera physalus
Identification: Fin Whales are the second largest species of whale in the world, weighing a whopping 40-80 tons and stretching out to lengths of 85 feet. They are streamlined and have V-shaped heads, with white skin surrounding their undersides while the rest is dark gray or black.
Where Found: West of the Kenai Peninsula.
Social Patterns: Fin whales hunt and travel in family groups of 2-7 whales, gorging themselves on small fish such as krill by opening their mouths, sucking in a huge volume of water, and then using their baleen to filter out any unwanted items.
Cool Facts: Fin whales occasionally cross-breed with blue whales. Each one has a unique color pattern on their back, which helps with identifying individuals.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Mike Baird
Scientific Name: Megaptera novaeangliae
Identification: Humpback whales have a gray and white coloration pattern and are renowned for their huge and distinctive pectoral fins. You may recognize them by their “humped back” appearance and the knobby skin of their heads. Their fins, or “flukes,” provide a distinctive fingerprint for each unique humpback whale.
Where Found: Southeastern Alaska, the Kodiak archipelago, Prince William Sound, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Sea. These are some of the most frequently seen whales in Alaska.
Social Patterns: Humpback whales travel great distances between their summer feeding and winter mating grounds. Each winter, they migrate all the way to Hawaii. Male humpback whales sing complex songs with many tones to impress female humpback whales. The next year, the song completely changes. Sometimes, humpback whales use air bubbles to confuse fish and make it easier to catch their dinners.
Cool Facts: The mating songs of the male humpbacks can be heard up 20 miles away!
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Joe McKenna
Scientific Name: Eschrichtius robustus
Identification: Gray whales are—no surprise—gray, and their skin features white and yellow patches. They do not have a dorsal fin, which are the fins most whales wear on their backs. Instead, gray whales have lines of bumps.
Where Found: The Bering and Chukchi seas.
Social Patterns: Gray whales migrate along the West Coast of the United States every year and prefer feeding on creatures that live along the ocean floor. This makes them the only bottom-feeding whale.
Cool Facts: Those who have tried to hunt gray whales call them the “devilfish” because they are fierce and fearless fighters.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Spencer Wright
Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
Identification: Orca whales, which are also known as “killer whales,” are some of the most famous whales around. You’ll be able to pick them out easily when you see their black and white color pattern and the white spots over their eyes.
Where Found: The coastal waters of Alaska.
Social Patterns: Orcas travel in social pods based on families – each whale travels with its mother and other family members. Because orcas swim in families and use teamwork to hunt, some consider them the wolf pack of the ocean.
Cool Facts: Although we think of orcas as whales, they are actually members of the dolphin family. They may have a “killer” reputation, but so far no orca in the wild has ever killed a human.
This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Inf-Lite Teacher
Scientific Name: Physeter macrocephalus
Identification: Besides their huge size and large heads taking up about a third of their bodies, sperm whales can be picked out by the single blowhole they have near the front of their heads on the left.
Where Found: Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and Aleutian Islands
Social Patterns: Sperm whales make deep dives into the ocean to feed on larger fish and squid. Female sperm whales tend to travel in family groups, while males travel together to mate and feed. Eventually, older male sperm whales may end up swimming the ocean deep alone.
Cool Facts: Sperm whales are distributed throughout the world – all the way from the tropical equator to the North and South poles. They really get around!
Have you ever spotted a whale in the wild before? Let us know in the comments below! For more information about Alaska’s whales, visit the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.