Gray whale tail, courtesy of John Calambokidis
2,000 lb (920 kg)
14-16 ft (4.5-5 m)
ADULT FEMALE FACTS
30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg)
46 ft (14.1 m)
ADULT MALE FACTS
30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg)
43 ft (13 m)
The gray whale is the only member of the Eschrichtiidae family, and the oldest of the baleen whales. Each winter, gray whales migrate to calving lagoons in Baja California to breed and bear their young. In spring, they begin the return trip north to feeding grounds in southeast Alaska. The 14,000-mile journey is the longest known animal migration on earth!A small group of about 300 gray whales remains in the northwest rather than returning to the Bering Sea.
A grey whale’s blow is low, 3-4 meters in height, often ‘heart’ shaped. Their tail fluke has convex trailing edges with a deep notch in the middle. They are very unobtrusive at the surface and rarely breach. When feeding they make sharp turns in shallow water and may raise pectoral fins and/or tail flukes out of the water, giving the impression that the whale is struggling or stranded.
Watch for gray whales on their southbound migration along the Pacific Coast starting in October. From mid-February to May, look for them on their northbound journey back to Alaska. Mothers and calves typically travel closer to shore.
About 300 whales remain in the northwest waters to feed rather than traveling back to Alaska. You can watch gray whales off the Oregon Coast at places like Cape Perpetua and Depoe Bay almost year-round! A small group of about 20 whales returns each spring to Puget Sound around Whidbey Island.
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
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 Near Shipwreck Point
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.
Grey whales are primarily bottom feeders that consume a wide range of invertebrates, such as amphipods, and tube worms found in bottom sediments. To feed, gray whales suck sediment and food from the sea floor by rolling on their sides and swimming slowly along, filtering their food through their 130 to 180 coarse baleen plates on each side of their upper jaw. In doing so, they often leave long trails of mud behind them and what are known as “feeding pits” in the sea floor.
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.
Once common throughout the Northern Hemisphere, gray whales are now only found in the North Pacific Ocean where there are two populations, in the eastern and western North Pacific. The eastern population was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but successfully recovered and was delisted in 1994. The western population remains very low, around 200 individuals, and is listed as endangered under the ESA and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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.