Whales 101

When I first started making art about whales, I had trouble telling one kind from another. Since there are over 75 kinds, maybe you do too. In time, I’ve become familiar with many.

Recently, for an art class I had to pick one to work with and thought you might like a glimpse of how one non-scientist considered three favorites: the sperm whale, humpbacks, and the gray whales. I’m leaving out blue whales who have escaped my interest by staying far off shore and the orcas, well publicized as the stars of movies and controversial entertainment of Seaworld.

Sperm Whales

I got started on whales in the first place because of my New England background, where widow’s walks and marine museums reminded us all of oil lamps and bank accounts filled by Yankee whalers. Even though my own family did not do the hunting, I carry a sense of guilt that whole ‘stocks’ of whales were nearly wiped out. Several kinds were killed for their oil but the sperm whales distinctive shape led it to be the one most frequently appearing on much scrimshaw then and coffee cups now.

The sperm whale is also the heart of Melville’s blockbuster novel Moby Dick. I happily have an edition with Rockwell Kent‘s simply gorgeous woodcuts. Those right-on black and white images seem to me to have plumbed the sperm whale’s essence and make it kind of scary for an artist who also does whales. For those interested in more about Moby Dick, there’s the literary angle, the cultural angle, and, of course, the movies of 1956 and 1998.

Gray Whales

The gray whales are dear to me largely because they are local. As part of their great migration from Mexico to Alaska they stop by the lower end of Whidbey Island (WA) and some even stay here through the summer. In winter they migrate to Baja Mexico, San Ignacio Bay. There, they’ve  become known as the “friendlies” for bringing their new-borns up to whale-watching boats. Visitors don’t easily forget the awe of this version of mother and child.

Visually, the mottled texture of the skin calls to me as an artist who loves texture. The gray whale’s shape is more subdued than some others, and so is a good candidate for the generic image of whale.

Humpback Whales

The humpbacks are well-watched in both Hawaii and the Caribbean. Probably more people have seen these huge creatures  than any other whale since their nurseries are also great vacations places. Their familiarity took another jump when their songs became available on CD so we could bring them along  on road trips.   

The distinctive shape of  humpbacks’  bodies includes the hump seen in their rolling dives and their long fins when they so readily breach, one of whale-watchers top ten photo-ops.


I’ve ended up choosing the sperm whale as a favorite for the next two months as my art focus.  Now that you think about it you may also have a ‘favorite’ whale because of your own experiences. Use the comment box below to share which you’re partial to and how you’ve met them.