Humpback Whales: Alaska’s giants of the deep

How long is a Humpback whale? Kids measure a skeleton at the Glacier Bay NP visitor center.

How long is a Humpback whale? Kids measure a skeleton at the Glacier Bay NP visitor center.

Kids who visit Alaska are likely to see the mighty Humpback whale, a marine mammal so big and so impressive it almost boggles the mind.

I know this, because even after 10 years of living and working around the waterways where Humpbacks like to hang out, the amazement never gets old.

If your family is headed to Alaska during the summer months (whales like to go to Hawaii during the winter, just like many people), it’s likely you’ll see one or more Humpback whales, feeding, leaping, diving, or just moseying through the water without a care in the world.

When I ask kids what animals they want to see most, bears and whales top the list. Fortunately, watching whales is pretty easy if you’re visiting the coastal areas of Southcentral or Southeast Alaska, and even more so if you take a boat.

 

[image courtesy whaleson.com.au]

[image courtesy whaleson.com.au]

Here are some cool whale facts to keep in mind: 

Humpbacks are ‘baleen whales’ who use bony plates to filter small fish, krill, and plankton into their enormous mouths, allowing the water to flow out and the food to flow in. Baleen is funny looking, almost fringe like, and it makes the whales’ mouths appear enormous.

A Humpback whales can grow up to 62 feet in length, and one whale can weigh up to 40 tons. Picture your school bus and you’ll have the length right. Now add a few elephants. Got an image? Wow.

A group of whales 'bubblenet feeds' in the cold waters of Alaska.

A group of whales ‘bubblenet feeds’ in the cold waters of Alaska.

Fluke markings help tell one whale from the other.

Fluke markings help tell one whale from the other.

Whales hang out in groups, called ‘pods’. Calves hang out with their mothers for quite a while until they can secure food on their own. They better, because calves grow until they’re about 10 years old.

Humpback whales are endangered, which means their numbers are not as high as biologists and researchers would like. In order to study the whales, scientists get to know particular pods around the world, watching where they go, who they hang out with, and what they eat. You’d think it would be tough to tell one whale from another, right? But each one has a distinctive fluke (tail), with markings distinguishing it from another. Researchers have catalogued every single one, though, and spend hours and days photographing whale tails to make sure they have everyone.

Whales, when they dive, can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes! How long can you hold your breath? Not that long!

Whale-watching is fun, and serious work.

Whale-watching is fun, and serious work.

Great places to spy Humpback whales are Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Resurrection Bay near Seward, and Prince William Sound near Valdez. Taking a day cruise is one way to look for whales, but many people choose multi-day trips aboard the Alaska Marine Highway (ferry) or smaller cruise ships that can watch the whales up close. Not too close, though; regulations keep everyone and everything a safe distance to protect both people and the whales.

Flukes up!

~EK

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