Students Ask and Experts Answer


Q. How did gray whales get their name?

A.The gray whale received its name from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin.

Q. What is a gray whale's skin like?

A. The skin has many scratches, scattered patches of white barnacles, and orange whale lice. A whale's skin feels like a peeled, hard-boiled egg. All the Adult grays may have scars and tooth-rake marks from encounters with Orcas. Light gray or white scars show where the whale barnacles have fallen off. Young whales develop barnacle patches soon after birth.

Q. How big are gray whales?

A. Adult males measure 45-46 feet (13.7-14 m. Adult females are slightly larger, and measure about 50 feet (15 m) long. Both sexes weigh 30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg). A 45-foot, 35-ton gray whale is about the same size as 10 large elephants. The largest gray whales have flukes, or tails, that may span 10 feet. Draw a life-size whale!

Q. Do gray whales sing?

A. These whales do produce gurgles and warbling moans, but no one fully understands their purpose. See: Sheyna Wisdom Listens to Whales.

Q. Do gray whales sleep?

A. This is what scientists have observed: Some say the whales don't stop swimming during migration, but many scientists now think they may sleep and continue swimming on "autopilot." They catch up on sleep in the lagoons, where they have even been observed snoring! Others say the whales take short naps of 10-20 minutes.

Q. How can I recognize a gray whale?

A. Gray whales have streamlined bodies with narrow, tapered heads. The upper jaw slightly overlaps the lower jaw. The gray whale has no dorsal (top) fin. But about 2/3 of the way back on the body is a prominent dorsal hump. It is followed 6-12 knuckles along the dorsal ridge that extend to the fluke (tail). Its fluke is about 10-12 feet (3.7 m) across, pointed at the tips, and deeply notched in the center. There are 2-5 grooves on the ventral throat. The grooves are 5 feet (1.5 m) in length. A gray's flippers are paddle shaped and pointed at the tips.

A whale spout can help you identify the gray whale, too. Gray Whales have a double blow hole. A gray whale spout or blow can reach up to 15 feet, and looks like a heart shape from the front or behind.

Q. How big are a gray whale's eyes?

An adult's eyes are about the size of baseballs. They are located about 8 feet from the tip of the gray whale's jaws.

Q. How long can a gray whale stay under water without coming up for air?

A. An adult gray whale can stay submerged up to 15 minutes.

Q. Do gray whales have teeth?
A. No. The gray whale is in the sub-order Mysticeti. The Mysticeti whales have baleen in their mouth instead of teeth.

Q. Are gray whales friendly?
Visitors to the calving and breeding lagoons sometimes encounter the "friendlies," or gray whales that come up to small boats and allow humans to touch them. Gray whales aren't very friendly during courtship and mating.

Q. Why do gray whales have so much fat when they swim around a lot? Wouldn't they burn off a lot of that fat?

A. Gray whales are constantly eating while they summer up north off Alaska. During this time they gain weight by eating the large zooplankton found in the cold waters off Alaska. During the summer feeding season they are not traveling the long distances they do when they migrate. During the migration south to Mexico then back north to Alaska, gray whales feed opportunistically (only when and where the find food) but they are expending much more energy swimming during the migration. Some whales become quite skinny before they return to Alaska.

Q. How much fat does the gray whale really have?

A. The amount of fat varies greatly, depending on the time of year and age of the whale. When the whales are feeding off Alaska, their body fat increases. When they migrate, they burn fat and lose weight. Body fat is different from blubber, and gray whales are losing mostly body fat when lose weight. Some blubber thickness is also lost during migration, but it is not very much. Blubber thickness can range from 9 cm to 20 cm depending on the age of the whale.