Eastern gray whales are the first migrating cetaceans to reach Alaska each spring. Swimming slowly from their winter breeding grounds in Mexico’s Baja California, these amazing animals have one of the longest round-trip migrations of any mammal on earth – up to 12,000 miles round trip!

Gray whales are “medium sized,” roughly 40-50 feet long and up to 90,000 pounds – about the size of a school bus. They may look a little rough around the edges because of the barnacles and parasites on their skin.

Where to find them

Gray whales are now only found in the North Pacific Ocean. From Mexico, the whales travel up the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, ultimately heading through False Pass in the Aleutian Island chain to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Gray whales are bottom feeders, scooping up silty seafloor and filtering tasty invertebrates through their baleen, so you’ll usually see them within a few miles from shore. These guys don’t breech out of the water, but you may see their pectoral fins or flukes rising out of the water while they’re feeling in shallow areas. While you won’t see big pods of gray whales – they’re fairly solitary – they are curious and may approach your whale watching tour boat.

When to come

The best time to see gray whales is during the migration, before and after they reach their northern feeding grounds. You may start seeing gray whales heading north along Inside Passage and Southcentral waters in March, then again as they and start swimming south in October. Many whale watch tours start operating tours in early spring to catch the northward migration.

TIP: What kind of whale is it? Gray whales and humpback whales are roughly the same size. Here are a few quick ways to tell which is which.

Gray Whale Humpback Whale
Color Um….gray, with lots of barnacles Black, with varying degrees of white (especially on flippers, belly, and flukes)
Dorsal fin None (although they have a noticeable dorsal hump) Small, with a broad base
Flippers Paddle-shaped, pointed at the ends Long (nearly 30% of the body size), white
Fluke/Tail S-shaped with training edges and deep median notch Broad, which sharp points and serrated edges
Blow Heart-shaped, about 12 feet high Balloon-shaped, about 9 feet high

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