While the distinction between one whale species and another is usually not too difficult to make, determining which whales are baleen whales and which ones have teeth can be somewhat challenging. Gray whales can easily be recognized because of their uniquely characteristic gray and white patterns, and unlike toothed whales, such as sperm whales, beaked whales and the killer whale, they have baleen instead of teeth. Most gray whales can be set distinctly apart from other species of baleen whale, primarily due to its unusual physical traits, including the fact that it lacks a dorsal fin.
Gray whales are among the largest baleen whales in the ocean. Even though their size does not compare with that of the blue whale, which is typically nearly twice as large as a gray whale, adult males can still grow up to a length of 11-14 meters. Gray whales have a color resembling dark, slate-gray, and are often covered in distinctive white and gray patterns that are unique to each individual whale. They are typically recognized by their two blowholes and uniquely heart-shaped blow, and by their unusually short baleen.
Even though their body shape and size may resemble that of some toothed whales, gray whales are actually baleen whales. This means that, instead of teeth, they have a baleen system that is designed to allow them to filter feed as efficiently as possible. The gray whale’s baleen is shorter than that of other large-size baleen whales, and its color is either white, yellowish or gray as well. Baleen whales typically open their mouths wide in order to filter feed, swallowing many different varieties of smaller fish and marine mammals in the process. In the case of gray whales, the menu that their smaller baleen are most adapted to includes copepods, krill, small fish and even birds that happen to be closer to the shoals.
Compared to other baleen whales, gray whales have a distinctive look and stand out not just through the color of their skin, but also through the unique characteristics of their baleen. Unlike species such as the pygmy right whale, the baleen of the gray whale are not long enough to stand out in a similar fashion. Also, this is the only baleen whale that has a larger upper jaw than the lower jaw. On occasion, it can be confused with humpback whales, although their smaller size, lack of a dorsal fin and quiet surface behavior will make gray whales stand out in most cases.