You never see a whole whale, but you get glimpses, from which you can reconstruct the entire animal.
They surface to breathe, and blow. When their blowholes are closed, they look like this: a pair of blowholes, with a depression between them. On this particular whale they are heavily encrusted with barnacles.
And when they are open, they look like this:
When you touch them their skin feels tight and smooth, like an over-inflated heavy-duty rubber beach toy, but they are not quite hairless. About 80 tiny stiff white whiskers (vibrissae) come out of the dimples in their heads, and they are thought to have sensory uses.*
They eat tiny organisms that are found in the mud on the sea floor, using a feeding mechanism unique to gray whales. They swim down, roll onto their right sides, scoop up a big mouthful of gunk and filter out the water and sediment through their baleen plates, leaving small crustaceans called amphipods behind. You can just see the baleen in the photo below, towards the left-hand side of the whale’s slightly open mouth.
And when one surfaces, look how the water cascades out of its mouth:
Close-up, the adults are covered in barnacles (and tiny orange “whale lice”, small harmless crabs that I failed to photograph).
They swim languidly along, apparently doing not much of anything, but sometimes they swim upside down, like this one, showing its two throat grooves (more of that later):
and roll over onto their sides:
showing the pectoral fin (on top in this photo):
Sometimes, if she decides to turn sharply, you can see the spine and tail, which has no dorsal fin, just a series of 9-13 fleshy knuckles along the backbone:
And of course, the supremely elegant tail:
The whole animal looks like this; the drawing was made by Captain Scammon, of whom more later.
Next time, fluking, breaching and spyhopping!
* A stranded newborn grey whale calf was dissected in San Diego in 2015, and the fascinating results can be read here: