The new season of the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) has started!! The team assembled in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) and began surveying the Chukchi Sea off the north slope of Alaska right away. Right off the bat, the observers found feeding gray whales about 25-50 miles from shore. Gray whales are baleen whales; they have between 130-180 coarse off-white plates of baleen, ranging 2-10 inches long. Baleen is made of keratin, the same material as our own hair and fingernails. These plates are lined up like teeth on a comb and hang down from the upper jaw where they act as a sieve to strain out all the goodies that baleen whales fill their mouths with, including water and mud.
Gray whales are the only baleen whales that are bottom feeders (although they are known to feed in the water column also). A gray whale will swim down to the ocean floor, open its mouth wide and swim along the ground scooping and suctioning up mud and other tiny animals from the bottom. Then it will close its mouth to swim back to the surface to grab a breath of fresh air. While surfacing, it opens its mouth slightly, presses its tongue up to the roof of its mouth to trap the deliciousness, and uses the water that is rushing into its mouths to rinse off the mud from its baleen, tongue, and mouth.