A Gray Whale Glossary (For Cetus Finalis & Other Reference)

Image by Lucie Hall (Linoleuim block print)Reminder:
Cetus Finalis, on sale NOW!

Book signing is on October 2nd (Sunday, 3-6PM), at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole St, 94117)

Hello, and welcome back!
In my new book, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, the reader joins a journey with a pod of gray whales in the Atlantic ocean during the early stirrings of the American Revolution. There are many terms used to describe gray whales which may not be common knowledge to all readers. For that reason, I’ve drawn up a glossary of terms, some words unique to whale nomenclature, which will be useful to know when reading Cetus Finalis, or any other information on whales.


A baby gray sports its baleen. Photo by Eric Cheng.

A baby gray sports its baleen. Photo by Eric Cheng.

Baleen is the bristly material inside a gray whale’s mouth that acts as its filtration system when eating. Baleen whales do not chew, they swallow their food, and their food is usually small, so they scoop up large quatities of mud, sand, or water, then close their mouths, and push it all out through the baleen filters. 130 to 180 long stips or plates of baleen grow down from the gums of the gray whale’s upper jaw, like fringed, overlapping curtains. The main organic ingredient of baleen is keratin, which also makes up most of human fingernails. Whales replace their baleen about every 5 years. Not all whales possess baleen. Taxonomically speaking, there are two infraorders of whales: baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti). Curiously enough, of the baleen whales, the gray whale is unique in that it is the sole member of its genus and family.


Photo by Ashala Tylor

Photo by Ashala Tylor

Blowholes are the gray whale’s nasal openings, situated on top of its head. All whales have blowholes. Baleen whales have dual blowholes, like the dual nostrils of many other mammal noses. Toothed whales have a single blowhole. The other “nostril” of the toothed whale blowhole still exists, but has evolved closed and works as a part of toothed whales’ sonar, helping produce the distinctive imaging clicks associated with dolphins, orcas, and sperm whales.

Blubber is a fibrous, thick layer of fat under the gray whale’s skin. Blubber is essential for maintaining the gray whale’s mammalian body heat in the cold ocean. Blubber was one source of whale oil.

Dorsal Hump
dorsalknucklesMost whales have a dorsal fin, but gray whales are characterized by a dorsal hump, followed by 6 to 12 dorsal knuckles along its tail stock leading to the flukes.

Flukes are whales’ twin tail flippers, the flat fans forming what we think of as the gray whale’s broad tail.

Pectoral Flippers

Courting gray whales, Laguna San Ignacio. Image by Phillip Colla.

Courting gray whales, Laguna San Ignacio. Image by Phillip Colla.

Whales have evolved pectoral flippers in the way that 4-limbed mammals have arms or forelegs. Pectoral flippers resemble fish fins, but they contain a skeletal structure very similar to terrestrial mammals. Interestingly enough, a whale’s pectoral flippers contain a number of bones corresponding to the bones in the human hand, though the whales’ are much larger.

Peduncle is a term for a whale’s tail stock to which the flukes are attached. The peduncle of a whale is the bit between the sex organs and the flukes.

A rostrum is the upper jaw of a whale, giving large whale faces their tapered, beak-like shape.

A curious California Gray Whale calf (Eschrichtius robustus) approaches the boat in San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Note the individual sensory hairs in each pit on the rostrum. Each winter thousands of California gray whales migrate from the Bering and Chuckchi seas to breed and calf in the warm water lagoons of Baja California. San Ignacio lagoon is the smallest of the three major such lagoons. 2008 population estimates put the California Gray Whale at between 20,000 and 24,000 animals.

Gray Calf Rostrum, San Ignacio Lagoon. (Small pits on the rostrum house sensory hairs.)

Cetus Finalis, on sale NOW!
Book signing is on October 2nd (Sunday, 3-6PM), at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole St, 94117)

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!


About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Books, Science and Nature, The Writing Profession and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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