8 Types of WHALES Found in Alaska (2024)

What types of whales can you see in Alaska?

Types of whales in Alaska

Whale-watching is one of the most exciting adventures I can think of! These enormous, fascinating creatures have captured the imagination of many nature lovers.

Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the whales found in Alaska. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species.

Although there are many interesting facts about whales, I kept each description brief to cover all the species. So, you may want to consider purchasing the book below if you want more information.

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8 WHALES in Alaska!

#1. Sperm Whale

  • Physeter macrocephalus

Whales in Alaska

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are up to 52 feet long and weigh 45 tons, while females grow to 40 feet and weigh 15 tons.
  • Their coloring is uniformly dark gray with a slightly paler underbelly.
  • Body is oddly proportioned, with a large, blocky head, small fins, and mismatched upper and lower jaws.

The Sperm Whale is the loudest whale in Alaska!

Its call can reach 230 decibels, loud enough to deafen humans several times over. Not only that, the force of their sound is so powerful that you could be vibrated to death if you were too close to its call. Incredibly, the sound travels through seawater much more effectively than through air, so we hear their calls as faint noises above the water.

In addition to their powerful calls, these whales are also capable of amazing physical feats. They can dive to 3,200 meters (two miles) and stay submerged for up to an hour! They regularly spend time at depths of 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) or more.

Part of the reason they prefer deep water is their feeding preferences. Their main food source, the giant squid, lives in extremely deep water, and these two massive animals have some epic deep sea battles. Scientists have learned much about the giant squid from examining the scars on Sperm Whales. These scars have revealed that the whales routinely eat squid that are equal to them in size. It’s almost impossible to imagine a squid that large!

#2. Beluga Whale

  • Delphinapterus leucas

Alaska whales

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 16 feet long and weigh 3,150 pounds.
  • They are white all over, with no shading for camouflage.
  • Their bodies appear chubby and soft due to a thick layer of blubber.

Beluga Whales are perfectly adapted to living in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle. Their thick blubber means that they can thrive in the frigid water over winter. In addition, instead of having a dorsal fin, these whales have tough ridges along their spines, which resist damage when surfacing among fast-moving ice floes.

This species is extremely important to the survival of Native people in the Arctic. Although the commercial harvest of Beluga Whales is illegal, subsistence harvesting by Native groups is legal, and its practice is not harmful to the Beluga population.

You’re most likely to recognize the Beluga Whale by its uniquely shaped head. They have extremely pronounced melons, which are segregated from their short rostrums (noses). The melon is a fat-filled organ that aids in communication and echolocation.

In addition to their recognizable heads, Beluga Whales are extremely vocal. They mimic the sounds they hear around them. This skill has earned them the nickname “canaries of the sea.” They are very social and tend to be curious around humans rather than fearful.

Beluga Whales are also able to move between salt and freshwater. They swim into estuaries, rivers, and inlets in pursuit of fish, making them easier to observe in the calm, more hospitable inland waters.

#3. Orca (Killer Whale)

  • Orcinus orca

Species of whales in Alaska

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 32 feet long and weigh as much as 11 tons.
  • Their distinctive coloring is instantly recognizable: Black overall, with a stark white underside and white patches under each eye.
  • Orcas’ dorsal fins are large, triangular, and point straight up or fall to one side.

Orcas are perhaps the most well-known whale in Alaska.

Although we refer to this species as a whale, the Orca is, in fact, the largest species of dolphin. Due to its recognizable coloring and widespread distribution, it would be challenging to find anyone who doesn’t know at least a little about this species!

Their adaptability is a true marvel and the reason they have spread into every corner of the globe. They occur throughout temperate and even some tropical seas. Additionally, Orcas are incredibly capable hunters and are widely regarded as the ocean’s top predator. Even fully-grown great white sharks occasionally fall prey to these skilled predators.

Intelligence and strong social bonds are two key factors that make this species so formidable in hunting. Orcas can hunt dangerous animals such as sharks by working together as a team to incapacitate the prey with minimal risk to themselves.

Despite their tremendous adaptability, some populations are still at risk. For example, the Southern Resident population off the west coast of the US is suffering from the impacts of human activity, which causes food scarcity and increased boat traffic. Conversely, the transient Bigg’s Orca is doing well. These pods hunt marine mammals rather than fish, so they are less affected by overfishing. They also move around more and live further from the coast, so human activity doesn’t impact them as much.

#4. Humpback Whale

  • Megaptera novaeangliae

Types of whales in Alaska

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults can reach 60 feet and weigh up to 40 tons.
  • Their coloring is black, with white markings on the belly and pectoral fins.
  • The fins are wavy, and the nose is covered in bumpy protrusions. The belly is often ridged.

This species is one of the most wide-ranging whales in Alaska.

The same whales that can be observed feeding in the waters around Alaska in summer travel to Hawaii during the winter months! Humpback Whales follow the same migration patterns year after year, making them easy to spot on whale-watching expeditions.

Whale watchers love to see Humpback Whales exhibit their showy behavior. They often breach high out of the water, slapping their bodies and fins against the surface. Scientists believe that the loud sounds produced by their breaching are a form of communication with other whales.

Krill, a type of tiny crustacean very similar to shrimp, is the primary food source of these gigantic whales. Humpback Whales, like the other great whales, lack teeth. Instead, they have hair-like plates called baleen that hang down from their upper jaws. Whales take huge gulps of water into their mouths and capture thousands of krill. Then they filter the water back out through the baleen plates, trapping the krill inside.

#5. Fin Whale

  • Balaenoptera physalus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 75 to 85 feet long and weigh 40 to 80 tons.
  • The coloring is light gray-brown across the back and white on the underside, and a wavy pattern forms where the two colors meet.
  • This species has a remarkably slender, streamlined body for such a large whale.

Fin Whales are the fastest swimmers of the great whales. This ability likely evolved to help them evade predation, especially by orcas that work together to hunt and kill young or vulnerable individuals.

Their speed is unnecessary for their hunting needs, though, because Fin Whales feed on krill, schools of tiny fish, and squid. Instead, they use a technique known as lunge feeding to speed through a tightly-grouped ball of prey, swallowing as many as possible

Fin Whales were hunted to near extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to their fast swimming pace and preference for offshore waters, they avoided predation during the primitive years of whaling. Unfortunately, as whaling techniques modernized and mechanized, they became victims of the industry.

But as conservation of whale species became a priority, the population of Fin Whales rebounded somewhat. Nevertheless, they are still in danger of extinction throughout their range.

#6. Minke Whale

  • Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 35 feet long and weigh a maximum of 10 tons.
  • Their upper bodies are uniformly black and contrast sharply with their white undersides. They have large gray patches behind the pectoral fins.
  • The body shape is much thicker than most large whales, with large fins and tails.

Minke Whales are very widely distributed and can be found in every ocean. In summer, they inhabit polar waters, where food is very abundant. It’s common to see them grouped with up to 400 individuals where food is plentiful. Minke Whales are very opportunistic feeders and eat a wide range of small schooling fish, tiny crustaceans, and plankton.

In winter, Minke Whales head to warmer waters and disperse widely in pairs or alone. This is likely a strategy to avoid orcas that hunt Minke Whales due to their relatively small size. In addition, they will swim much faster than normal to try to outrun orcas.

If you spot one, you may recognize a Minke Whale by its unique surfacing style when they come up for air. The tip of their snout appears from the water first, then they roll the length of their bodies along the surface and dive down using their entire tail.

#7. Bowhead Whale

  • Balaena mysticetus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults reach a length of 62 feet and can weigh up to 100 tons.
  • Their coloring is dark gray to black, with white patches on the jaw and lower belly.
  • Their mouths are shaped as an upside-down curve, and their baleen plates are often visible.

Alaska is the only place to observe Bowhead Whales in Alaska.

They reside at the southern edges of pack ice in the Arctic Circle and travel north with it as it recedes for summer. Their migration is entirely dependent on the formation, thickness, and melt of the sea ice.

Bowhead Whales feed differently throughout the year, as the ice influences prey availability. In the winter, they feed near the ocean floor. In spring, they use cracks in the ice to travel to previously inaccessible areas. Finally, in summer and autumn, they congregate together to feed near the surface on huge zooplankton blooms.

The thick skull of the Bowhead Whale is perfectly adapted to living among sea ice. Native Alaskan whalers report that they have even seen Bowhead Whales smash their way through ice two feet thick to breathe at the surface. The ice also causes scars on the skin of the whales, which scientists use to identify individuals.

These whales have a very slow, long lifecycle and do not begin to breed until age 25. Evidence such as ancient harpoon heads recovered from recently deceased animals suggests these whales can live for over 200 years! This makes them the longest-living mammal in the world.

#8. Gray Whale

  • Eschrichtius robustus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 42 to 49 feet long and weigh up to 45 tons.
  • They’re a mottled pale gray color with bumps and notches that create a ridged appearance.
  • This species has a smooth, slender body, a narrow head, and an enormous tail.

Gray whales strongly prefer coastal habitats and can be found in very shallow water near land. This habit is related to their eating habits, which are different from other baleen whales.

Instead of skimming plankton from the surface or engulfing schooling fish from the water column, they slide along the sandy sea floor on their sides, sifting the sediment through their baleen plates. This feeding method often leaves tell-tale ditches on the sea floor that indicate the presence of Gray Whales.

As you might imagine, this species’ diet is much more varied than other baleen whales. They eat small fish, swimming crabs, fish eggs, tube-dwelling worms, and other creatures that live on the sea floor.

Gray whales often fall prey to Orcas. Scars from these encounters are almost always present on the flukes and tails, and scientists use them to identify individuals. Orca pods tend to attack young calves or migrating individuals when they are most vulnerable.

Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS found in Alaska?

Check out this field guide!

Which of these whales have you seen in Alaska?

Let us know in the comments!

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