Seven Shades of Grey


Well, a lot has happened since our last post!

Firstly, we were lucky enough to meet with North Slope Borough Department of
Wildlife Management Senior Wildlife Biologist Ph.D. John C. ‘Craig’ George, who is wise in the ways of the Bowhead. We discussed everything from Bowhead tongues to scarring patterns to mating behaviors to baby butterball whales.


Feedback on our whales included creating paler shading on the upper and lower palates, and switching out the tongue texture from a Gray Whale to a Bowhead Whale (Craig kindly shared a gorgeous tongue photo).


This diagram was sent to our marine biologist consultants to address other unknowns, like marking sizes on the chin and eyes, and where exactly a Bowhead’s genital markings should be painted (a subject that had me confused for days).


After a nice period of time, a few minor revisions and a lot of layering in photoshop, here is Mysti in all her glory. (The texture/colour map has 92 active layers in total, added to the bump map which has 43, equals a lot of RAM but an infinitely customizable Bowhead texture package).

What is a bump map you may ask?


This is what a bump map does (set to extreme levels, mind). It’s like a topographic map that coordinates with the colour map (refer to the clown whale post if you haven’t read it already).

It is basically a simplified, greyscale version of the color map, where white raises and black depresses areas of the texture too detailed to effectively model with polygons and splines. In this way we can create scratches and bumps and wrinkles without spending tedious hours modelling them into the actual model shape (saves a lot of time and effort). It’s like playing shadow puppets, except in a computer.

7-11CHIN It lets you create chin scratches…


…baleen with visual depth and body…

7-11fluketail …and bitten and beaten up tail flukes.


Here is Finnegan with the bump map applied.


Here is Finnegan without the bump map. As you can see, it adds a depth and realism that really helps make the whale feel like a living, breathing, scratched-up animal. The skin of the animal is just as smooth in both pictures, but the bump map fools the lighting into creating shadows and breaking up specular highlights.


Now, onto our main broadcast, and the topic of this blog.



Imperative to creating a recognizable and engaging cast of whales is making each whale individual and thus unique. Otherwise samey small whale is just interacting with samey big whale, in a sea of samey clone whales doing samey things. To keep them straight, we’ve named the whales. From left to right there’s Ghost (white and black phases), Mysti, Finn, Finnegan, Fluke and Baelin.


Mysti the mum whale with yearling Ghost (black and baby Ghost (white). Ghost’s baby and  yearling sizes have not been finalized/scaled at this point. A yearling Bowhead is usually about twice the length of a newborn.


The polyandrous group- Baelin (m), Fluke (m), Finnegan (m), Finn (m) and Mysti (f). Bowhead whales are quickly becoming my favorite creatures, because they are incredibly peaceful animals. They do not retaliate when attacked, but will simply swim at high speed to ice cover. They do not aggressively compete for a female either. In mating season, Bowhead males calmly cohabit with the female and share their time with her, allowing the sperm to determine the progenitor.

‘Ghost’ (White) Baby Bowhead

Bowhead whales are born very pale and very chubby, rather like oversized butterballs with flukes.

7-12GhostW3 7-12GhostW2

‘Ghost’ (Black) Yearling Bowhead

By the time they reach a year old, Bowheads have entered their dark skin phase, usually with chin markings starting to emerge.


‘Mysti’ Matriarch Bowhead

Bowhead females peak in growth faster than their male counterparts, and often dwarf their male companions.



Female Bowheads have a distinctive butterfly genital marking- the two dots demarcate where the nipples are tucked away in the blubber, to protect from the cold waters.


Mysti bears some nasty rope entanglement scars on her tail. Sadly, many real whales (Bowheads and others) have been seen with such scars.

7-12Mysti3 ‘Finn’  the Grey

Finn is an older male with fading skin and some nasty scars.


Note the walrus-tusk scars and the larger white eye-patches.

7-12Finn4The age of a Bowhead can be gathered by the abundance of white on their tail flukes, rather like grey hair. In comparison, younger Bowheads will display little to no white phasing (see Ghost and Fluke).


The triangular genital marking of the male bowhead is visible here, though more immediately noticeable on Finnegan and Fluke.

7-12Finn2‘Finnegan’  the Blue

Finnegan is the middle-aged male of the group, with a recognizable blue tinge to his skin.


Each whale has a unique white chin and chin-spot pattern.

7-12Finnegan2 7-12Finnegan1

He bears the mark of a boat propeller on his side, tough man.

‘Fluke’ the Young Guy

Fluke is the youngest of the breeding males, with very little scarification or white phasing on his tail. His eye spots are still quite dark, as Bowheads will not display fully-developed eye spots until they are 20 years old.


Chin patches and spots are a privilege, not a right. Not all Bowheads will develop chin spots in their lifetimes, and some whales will not develop the characteristic white chin patches either.

7-12Fluke4 7-12Fluke3 7-12Fluke2

Old Man ‘Baelin’

Baelin is the ancient whale of the group, based on an actual Bowhead thought to be over 200 years old. Extremely old whales can exhibit white phasing extending onto the caudal peduncle (upper tail). Their eye spots are also larger, and their pectoral fins exhibit more wear and tear, as well as whitening.

7-12Baelin4 7-12Baelin3

5-10% of Bowhead whales have speckled bellies. It is not yet known whether this is due to cross-breeding with Southern Right Whales or if it is a genetic throwback sneakily coding for speckled bellies in certain individuals.


The concentrated scarring present on the rostrum (bony nose hump in front of the blowholes) is caused by the action of pushing up and breaking ice sheets to create breathing holes.


Now, I’m curious, who is *your* favorite whale?
– Hannah Foss (Project Lead Animator)

One thought on “Seven Shades of Grey

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