The gray whale is the only member of the Eschrichtiidae family. Different from many other large whales, gray whales are frequently seen close to shore feeding along shallow, muddy shorelines. Theirbodies are unique with gray patches and white mottling. Patches of barnacles and whale lice also live on their skin.
Gray whales make extremely long migrations, approximately 10,000 to 14,000 miles round trip between the Bering Sea and Baja California, Mexico. This journey takes two to three months each way. Some individuals live in the Strait of Juan de Fuca year round while others duck into Puget Sound to feed along their migration.
The best places to see gray whales along The Whale Trail are sites near the Strait of Juan de Fuca such as Freshwater Bay County Park, Salt Creek Recreation Area, Sekiu Overlook, Shipwreck Point, Neah Bay and La Push. In Puget Sound gray whales are often seen around Whidbey Island. Langley and Coupeville also offer good viewing opportunities.
Gray whales have baleen, a comb-like filtering structure, instead of teeth. Their upper jaw overlaps the lower and is slightly arched. Unlike most other whales, gray whales are bottom feeders. They scoop up mouthfuls of sediment to find small, buried crustaceans. Using their baleen they strain out the sediment and swallow the rest. Lacking a dorsal fin, they instead have a “dorsal hump” located about two-thirds of the way down their back followed by 8-14 small bumps or “knuckles.”
Gray whale migrations are very important for their feeding, breeding and calving patterns. In the fall the whales leave the Bering Sea where they have been feeding all summer and head to warmer waters to breed and give birth to their calves. They remain in these calving lagoons for several months, allowing the calves to build up a thick blubber layer before heading back into colder waters.
Gray whales are usually seen alone or in small groups. During their time in warm waters they often become friendly with boaters, even allowing people to touch them.
Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s gray whales were hunted commercially to very low numbers. Since the implementation of a ban on commercial hunting adopted by the League of Nations in the 1930s, numbers have increased steadily. In 1994 gray whales were removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife when their numbers neared the estimated original population size.
Even though these whales have significantly recovered, they still face a number of threats including collisions with vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat degradation and disturbance from whale watching. In addition, gray whales are currently hunted by native people of Chukotka (Northeastern Siberia) under regulation by the International Whaling Commission, which allows aboriginal subsistence whaling.