BARROW - In an ancient ritual that often precedes their long migration south, gray whales are rubbing bellies and scratching backs in the Arctic Ocean surf, sometimes just feet from squealing crowds of people.
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The barnacle-encrusted creatures are stopping motorists and tourists along the coastal road of this Inupiat village, rolling, scooting and waving fins like they are performers at Sea World.
Even the locals are impressed.
"Wow! It was right there!" shouted Loila Ahkiviana one recent afternoon, pointing to chilly water that seconds before rippled with splotchy mounds of black-and-white whale flesh.
The small whale's short show ended with a side roll. A shiny, black flipper hung in the air, like a goodbye wave. Then it swam away as a four-wheeler roared up the sandy beach.
"That was pretty cool!" Ahkiviana shouted with a big smile, her 11-year-old son equally jazzed. "It was really close to the shore."
The coastline ritual isn't just entertainment. One theory holds that the whales are scratching off barnacles to remove drag before they journey to winter calving lagoons along Mexico's Baja Peninsula, about 5,000 miles away.
"That's certainly a possibility," said Robert Suydam, a whale scientist with the Barrow-based North Slope Borough.
Then again, they might be feeding, sifting crustaceans through baleen filters, he said.
Whatever the reason, the demonstrations have a touch of the theatrical. One whale popped a massive, mottled head straight out of the water 15 yards in front of two Austrian tourists, Chris and Curtis Carlson.
The "big, ugly head" - like grimy, ancient flotsam - jutted 4 feet out of the water and slipped back under, said Chris Carlson.
"It was huge!" she said.
Later, she and her husband talked about the sighting while waiting at the airport for a plane to Anchorage, a fringed stick of black baleen sticking out of her backpack. The baleen was from a bowhead whale, the kind locals usually hunt.
"It looked like he was standing on his toes," Curtis said. "I had the feeling he knew there were tourists and he was just showing off."
That's called spyhopping, Suydam said. No one really knows why gray whales do it. They might just be looking around, checking things out.
"It's one of the mysteries of the whales," he said.
An estimated 9,000 whales - half the Pacific stock - spend their summers in the Chukchi Sea, Suydam said. Most can be found between Wainwright and Barrow, the nation's northernmost communities.
Gray whales can exceed 40 tons and reach 50 feet in length, according to the state Department of Fish and Game's Web site.