From Humpbacks to Orcas: A Journey Through Alaska’s Whale Diversity

Alaska is the land of the whales and there are a number of different species to watch as they swim around the Great Land. Humpback whales, gray whales, orcas, and even minke whales are all commonly seen in the waters of Alaska.

During the summer, many of these whales migrate back from the warmer water off Hawaii, Baja California and Central America to Alaska’s cooler waters. Join a whale watching cruise in Juneau, Ketchikan or Seward to see these magnificent creatures at their most active.

Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are large marine mammals that live in and around oceans throughout the world. They can travel up to 16,000 miles in a year and migrate between nutrient-rich polar regions in the summer to tropical or subtropical waters in the winter to breed and live off their fat reserves.

These magnificent creatures have a slender, narrow body with a rounded head and long flippers that can reach a length of 4.6 meters. They also have a distinctive color pattern that extends to their flukes. Their bodies are black on the dorsal (upper) sides and mottled white on their ventral (under) sides.

Their flippers are unique to humpback whales and feature a pattern of knobby protuberances called tubercles that help them swim more efficiently. There are also tubercles along the top of their rostrum and under their lower jaws, and these contain vibrissae, which are short, stiff whisker-like hairs that connect to nerves in the animal’s head.

They are very skilled swimmers and can dive more than 600 feet underwater. They can also use their long flippers to propel themselves out of the water, which can be quite a spectacle to witness.

When a humpback whale is on the hunt, it uses its long, bristle-like hairs called baleen to filter out tiny shrimp-like creatures and small fish. This helps them catch their prey before it escapes into the water.

These whales feed for 90% of their waking hours and are known to consume about a ton of food each day. This provides them with the nutrients they need to survive and build their blubber reserves for the rest of the year.

During the winter, humpbacks don’t need to be as active and focus on their mating rituals. They can spend months traveling to their mate’s mating grounds, and when the season is over they will then go back to feeding.

Like most other cetaceans, humpbacks are social creatures. They have a complex communication system and use their enigmatic songs as a form of socialization, or to attract potential mates.

While humpbacks can be seen anywhere in the world’s oceans, they tend to frequent shallow and warm waters near coastal shores or offshore reef systems. They will also spend time swimming over and around seamounts, which are volcanic outcrops in the ocean that humpbacks can use for shelter from the weather.

Gray Whales

Gray whales are marine mammals that are the largest members of the sperm whale family. They can grow to more than 40 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They are slow-moving and can travel thousands of miles over the course of a single year.

They feed on small crustaceans called amphipods that live at the bottom of the ocean. They siphon the mollusks off the seafloor and swallow them up through their baleen plates. The amphipods also help filter out other small organisms, such as plankton and krill, from the water.

Foraging is a crucial part of the gray whale’s survival, as they consume up to 2,000 pounds of food per day in the Arctic during the summer. These fatty foods are a major energy source for their 5,000-mile migration to warmer waters off Baja California each winter, when they give birth and nurse their young.

But climate change is changing their diets. In Alaska, for example, there is less sea ice during the summer, which opens up wider swaths of the Arctic for gray whales to graze on amphipods.

So, they’re shifting their foraging routes to different areas in response. In the Gulf of Alaska, they’re moving south of the Aleutian Islands; in the southeastern Bering Sea and the southern Chukchi Sea, they’re heading west.

While some of these changes are good for the whales, there’s another: It could make them more susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear or ship strikes, says Frances Gulland, a marine mammal veterinarian at the University of California, Davis.

One group of whales, the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), has been spotted cutting short their Arctic migration and instead spending their summers in inshore waters along Washington’s west coast and British Columbia. These animals have been known to eat shrimp in Possession Sound between Whidbey Island and Everett, for instance.

Researchers say the PCFG is an evolutionary remnant of whales that were caught by commercial whaling before a ban on the industry in 1975 almost killed the species out of existence. But scientists are worried that climate change may affect the PCFG’s ability to survive, as warmer waters and less ice open up new areas for them to graze.


Orcas, also known as killer whales, are one of the most intelligent whale species. They are highly social animals, traveling in group sizes called pods, which can be sorted into three different populations (ecotypes) based on differences in diet, pod structure, and culture.

These large whales have a shiny black body, with white areas on the belly, flank, and behind their eyes. They also have a white underside to their flukes and a grey saddle patch behind their dorsal fin that is unique to each individual whale.

They have a long, thin beak and can grow up to 20 feet in length and weigh more than 10 tons. They can swim at speeds of up to 15 knots and are capable of surviving underwater for a long period of time, making them some of the most powerful marine mammals.

Their feeding habits are diverse, but they tend to specialize in certain types of prey. Some populations focus on fish, while others prefer to hunt marine mammals such as seals and other dolphins.

Orcas are highly adaptive and have developed specialized hunting techniques to catch specific prey items. They can locate their food with echolocation, a technique that allows them to follow their prey under the water. They can also swim long distances to reach their targets.

In Alaska, orcas can be seen year-round in coastal waters. They’re most common in areas that have a high ocean productivity and strong upwellings.

These conditions help them find their food sources, but they can also be affected by oil spills. Two pods of orcas in Prince William Sound were severely impaired by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Since then, no other oil spills have occurred in the area.

Like other whales, orcas have evolved to survive in harsh environments. They’re known for their curiosity about humans and are quickly trained to do tricks when in captivity.

They also are renowned for their sophisticated vocalizations, which are unique to each population and passed down through generations. Their calls, whistles, and clicks help researchers identify whether a pod is resident or transient, as well as which sub-pod it belongs to.


On a whale watching tour, you will also see dolphins that are a diverse family of whales (Cetacea) with many different species. They can be gray or white in color and have a variety of patterns and snout shapes. They are carnivores and eat fish and squid. They are found all over the world but are currently facing a lot of threats including pollution, climate change, and fishing operations.

They are grouped into two taxonomic suborders: baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti). Mysticete dolphins filter feed for zooplankton by skimming large amounts of water with their long, pointed baleen plates. They also gulp huge quantities of prey that they trap in their mouths using hundreds of baleen plates.

Odontocetes have various numbers of identical conical or spade-shaped teeth, which they use to strain and grasp their prey. They can swallow their prey whole, or they can tear it apart by shaking it or crushing it.

These animals are very intelligent and have a very varied diet. They eat all kinds of things from squid and fish to other marine mammals like walruses and sea lions.

Their behavior is very interesting and they can be very graceful and playful. They can communicate with other dolphins by using a range of sounds and ultrasonic pulses.

There are dozens of species of dolphins and each one has its own unique habitat, appearance, and behavior. Some of them are grey in color, others have black or white patterns, and some have pink spots.

They can also be very social and will form a herd with other dolphins to help them feed. This can be done on land or in the water and involves driving schools of fish to shallow areas so that they can catch them and eat them.

Some species will drive their prey into the ground to corral it in a tight ball. This is called cooperative feeding and can be beneficial because it gives them a wide range of food to choose from.

Some dolphins also have flukes that stun their prey so they can easily eat it. This can be especially helpful for smaller creatures that are difficult to eat.