Cetacean Elation: Gray Whales

Gray Whales are almost certainly one of the most well known and widely studied species of whales in the ocean. All this attention is without question due to their extraordinary annual migration from the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja, California and back again. It may also have something to do with the fact that these behemoths tend to travel close to the shore of one of the most highly populated coasts in the entire world.

Perhaps you have already been on a whale watching trip, and perhaps that trip is where you first discovered your propensity for sea sickness. If not, I commend your strong sea legs. If so, don’t worry, it happens to the best of us. Inevitably we’ve all been on a boat once in our lives, and typically will then use that Ralph-free experience as proof we’re not prone to sea-sickness. However, once at the mercy of the captain of a whale watching boat you may learn otherwise. For when this species of salty sea dog spots a leviathan, he invariably steers the boat in such a way that the poor souls deluded into thinking they didn’t need to pop a Dramamine are now speed dialing the Coast Guard for an emergency lift off the ship. Hopefully in between the heaves and the hoes you were able to spot a fin or blow from one of these amazing creatures.

Cetacean Elation: Gray Whales scuba environment  whale watching grey whales gray whales california abigail smigel

Gray Whales, or Eschrichtius robustus, as they are known to scientists and certain marine biology nerds, are the sole members of the family Eschrichtiidae. Like all whales and dolphin, they are mammals that have warm blood, breathe air, have hair (though few and far between), bear live young and produce milk. Unlike certain showboating relatives, Gray Whales do not have teeth with which to catch fish tossed for doing a flip or two. Rather, they have hair-like plates made out of keratin (think finger nails) called baleen lining their jaw. The baleen are used for filtering animals out of the water. The whole eating process is unique in and of itself as well. When feeding close to shore, they will roll onto their sides and place their cheek a few inches above the seafloor. By retracting their large tongues while in this position, a mouthful of mud and water is then sucked in. Once their mouths can hold no more, they then proceed to force the mix out through their rows of baleen. Small, mud-dwelling critters are then caught in the coarse fringe and swallowed.

If you consider yourself a sharp son of a gun, you may have guessed by now what color Gray Whales are. However, contrary to what you may believe, Grays actually have skin that is quite dark. The gray coloration is a combination of gray and white patches of barnacles, whale lice and other ocean hitchhikers. The damage created by these critters results in a gray mottled coloration all over their bodies.

Though Grays are not the acrobats their close cousins the Humpbacks are, they do provide a memorable experience with every encounter. This is especially true in San Ignacio lagoon, one of the lagoons in Baja they tend to frequent during the winter months. Gray Whales are curious critters and have been consistently approaching small boats in this area for several years. A trip down to Baja in the winter is the perfect time for a close encounter with these giants.

Migration patterns give Gray Whales two distinct habitats. The first is the summer feeding grounds in the plentiful Arctic waters of the Chuckchi Sea. Gray Whales remain in the feeding grounds for approximately four months before moving south in late September and early October. Their second home is the warm lagoons of Baja California, which they use for mating as well as breeding. Due to a gestation period that is approximately one-year, calves are born in the same waters where they were conceived the year prior. After a quick two-month introduction to the world, mother and calf head back north to the colder but more bountiful waters of the Arctic.

Although the current Gray Whale population is estimated to be around 20,000 individuals, this was not always the case. In the 19th century, whalers discovered the easy pickings of breeding Gray Whales in the lagoons of Baja and hunted them to the brink of extinction. Protected by law since 1946, the species has made a remarkable comeback. In fact, they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1993 by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). However, a recent subject of controversy is the decision made by the International Whaling Commision (IWC) to allow the native Makah Tribe of Washington State to kill 4 Gray Whales each year. Conservationists feel this permission may open the door to other groups seeking to bring back whaling. However, supporters of the decision feel it is rekindling the tribe’s heritage.

Here in San Diego we are coming up on prime whale watching season, and you can almost hear the hum of the boat engines. So if you’re interested in a trip to some warm weather as the seasons are changing and have a hankering to view a cetacean, think about a trip to San Diego or Baja.