Humpback whales are common sights in the summer in Alaska. Not unlike the fingerprints of humans, the “flukes,” or tails, of humpbacks have distinct patterns that make it possible to definitively identify individuals. The most amazing humpback sightings involve “breaching.” A breach is when the whale leap out of the water – sometimes they heave themselves all the way out of the water, and other times a breach is more of a half-twist out of the water. Scientists are unsure why whales breach, and have numerous theories on the matter, from believing that the breach is an expression of joy to thinking it’s a way whales relieve the itching of sea lice. Another exciting humpback behavior to observe is bubble feeding. When whales bubble feed, they dive straight up from the bottom of the ocean emitting columns of bubbles and use these bubbles to trap small fish and krill. They open their gigantic mouths, using ventral columns along their throats to take in huge quantities of water and prey. Then, an in-throat filter called baleen forces the water out and keeps the food behind.
Where to find them
Humpback whales range from Hawaii in the winter to the north Pacific in the summer. The best places to spot humpbacks in Alaska are the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, the waters around Kodiak and the Barren islands, the area between the Semidi and Shumagin Islands, and the eastern Aleutian Islands and southern Bering Sea.
When to come
Humpback whales – or most of them, anyway – head to Hawaii during the winter, so the best time to see them in Alaska is from the late spring to the fall. Humpbacks are easy to spot. When they surface to breathe, they shoot a plume of mist and water into the air and make a short, puffing sound. Find this, and you’ll probably see their tales surface a short time later as they come to the surface and dive back down to the depths of the ocean.