Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are baleen whales native to the coastlines of the eastern North Pacific Ocean, with a small remaining population off the Asian coast of the pacific. Their close proximity to the coast has made them a popular attraction for whale watchers, and some are quite friendly with boaters.
Most adult gray whales are around 40 feet in length and can weigh up to 40 tons. Their name comes from the grey and white mottled coloration of their skin, which is often covered with layers of barnacles and noticeable scars or scratches. Gray whales lack dorsal fins, but do have six to twelve dorsal “knuckles” and twin, v-shaped blowholes, making them easy to identify.
The gray whale is the only baleen whale that feeds on benthic organisms, meaning it feeds on tiny animals that live on the sea floor. Whereas other baleen whales feed by swimming through groups of plankton with their mouths agape, the gray whale feeds by diving to the sea floor, turning on its right side and scooping sediment into its mouth. The tiny crustaceans and tubeworms in the sediment become entangled in the baleen plates, and then the water and sand in the whale’s mouth can be expelled. Being as almost all gray whales feed by turning on their right side it is common for older whales to lose sight in their right eyes due to damage from the sea floor.
The largest population of gray whales inhabits the shallow waters of the eastern North Pacific. Each year they make an incredible journey of up to 14,000 miles from their feeding grounds near the Alaska coast to the protected lagoons near Baja California for mating and calving. Each leg of this annual journey takes two to three months. In some areas off the coast of Washington state and Vancouver Island, Canada gray whales may live year-round.
Due to its size, the gray whale’s only natural enemy is the orca, and many bear the scars resulting from killer whale attacks. As with most large cetaceans, the gray whale faces its largest threat from humans. Grey whales vanished from the Atlantic coast of Europe several hundred years ago likely due to hunting, and the remaining Asian population consists of less than 200 animals. As commercial whaling of the grey is now outlawed, North American gray whale populations have recovered greatly, with an estimated current population of 19,000 to 26,000 individuals.
GRAY WHALE FACTS
Most gray whales live for 50-70 years.
Gray whales can dive for up to fifteen minutes before resurfacing.
Newborn gray whale calves are fifteen feet long and weigh 1,100-1,500lbs.
Early sailors nicknamed the gray whale the “devilfish” due to its protective nature of its calves.
World Wildlife Foundation