Gray whales are baleen whales, named for their slate gray color. They typically have gray and white patches and are covered with abrasions, scars, white barnacles and orange whale lice. These whales are big: adult males average 45 to 46 feet in length and adult females measure slightly larger. They generally live in small groups of about three whales, though groups as large as 16 have been observed. While feeding, groups of gray whales converge and hundreds of them can be spotted in the same area at one time.
Beginning in late February, gray whales begin their annual 5,000-mile migration north to Alaska’s coast. They travel by line of sight, meaning they stay relatively close to the coastline throughout their journey and provide spectators ample viewing opportunities. Throughout April and May approximately 18,000 gray whales enter the Bering Sea, usually through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, and continue moving along the coast of Bristol Bay. After passing Nunivak Island they head toward St. Lawrence Island and disperse to spend their summer feeding in shallow water.
Visitors to Seward or Homer in Alaska’s Southcentral region can catch a front row seat as the whales skirt the Kenai Peninsula and continue west. Seward is a popular stop on cruise itineraries and just more than two hours from Anchorage by car. Several tour operations here offer gray whale watching excursions out in the waters of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. Drive an additional three hours south to reach the port community of Homer. Homer is teeming with charter fishing and boat tour operations and serves as a gateway community to Kachemak Bay. Both Resurrection Bay and Kachemak Bay extend out into the Gulf of Alaska, offering visitors plentiful gray whale viewing opportunities. Tours in both communities can be packaged to include glacier, kayak or fishing tours in addition to whale watching, and range anywhere from a few hours to day-long and multi-day excursions.
Alaska’s Southwest region is renowned for fishing, but come April it’s a must-add to any whale watching itinerary. Air and sea are generally the best ways to access some of the more remote areas of the region. The state ferry — the Alaska Marine Highway System — is a convenient mode of travel to Southwest Alaska. Routes extend all the way from the Inside Passage region, along Prince William Sound and Southcentral Alaska as well as throughout the Aleutian Islands.
Daily flights from Anchorage and Homer are also convenient ways to access Kodiak Island, Alaska’s largest island and the nation’s second largest. Kodiak is famous for bear viewing and in April also serves as home base for the annual Whale Fest Kodiak. Whale Fest Kodiak is a 10-day celebration of the return of the Pacific gray whale population to Alaska waters. Kodiak is fortunate to have up-close access to nearly all of the gray whale population that pass through the area, and many whales linger here for the summer as well. This year marked the 15th year of the festival, popular with locals and visitors alike. Events during the celebration include scientific lectures, marine mammal-inspired music, traditional Alaska Native games and environmental forums.
Some may recall the international effort to rescue gray whales from an ocean ice pack near Point Barrow, Alaska in 1988. The ordeal was deemed Operation Breakthrough and is recounted in the upcoming romantic drama, “Everybody Loves Whales,” starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. Filming began last fall in Anchorage, where production crews created sets to resemble places in Barrow during the whale rescue. Take in all the whale-saving action come the film’s scheduled release in January 2012.
For more information on whale watching, click here.