The family Eschrichtiidae
only contains one genus and species, the Gray whale
Only found in the Northern Hemisphere
, the Gray whale can easily be observed along the West Coast of
North America, where it performs unbelievably long migrations
from its summerly feeding grounds
in the Bering Sea to the world-famous winterly breeding lagoons of Baja California (Mexico) and back, for an overall
20000km (12400 miles) round-trip.
A small number of individuals, though, prefer to spend the summer in British Columbia, rather than travelling all the
way up to the Arctic.
Whale Watchers need to know that the Mexican breeding lagoons (San Ignacio, Guerrero Negro, etc.) are all on the
Pacific coast of Baja California; do not look for Gray whales in the Sea of Cortez, you will not find any!
A second, much smaller population of Gray whales can be seen in the Okhotsk Sea (Siberia, Russia), during summer
months and migrates to South Korea for winter.
Strikingly, the Gray whale does not feed at all in winter, and it is known to lose as much as 30% of its weight
Some characteristic features of this species are:
- Mottled gray colour, with relatively tiny white patches
- Arched head and mouth.
- No dorsal fin
- Two pleats (throat grooves)
- Flukes are raised above the water surface when deep diving
- Moderate to huge amount of parasites, such as barnacles and whale lice
Female Gray whales are generally larger than males.
Mating occurs between December and January, and gestation lasts for about 13 months.
The newborn rapidly gains weight by drinking its mother's fat-rich milk, and when 2 or 3 months old it is already
strong enough to face its first migration.
During the long journey, though, mother and calf must face dangerous situations, especially when crossing the
, where Transient Orcas (Orcinus orca
) are known to attack such pairs of Gray whales and to
prey on calves.
The Gray whale is a bottom-feeder
, its diet being mainly based on benthic crustaceans called Amphipods
This also explains why it is mainly found in relatively shallow waters.
When feeding, the Gray whale rolls onto its right side ("left-handed" individuals are known but rare), and sweeps the
bottom engulfing large amounts of sediment and food, which is then filtered by means of its short baleens as water and
silty water is pushed out.
The Gray whale is naturally inquisitive, it often spyhops, lobtails and breaches. In our experience, it is definitely
the most friendly, curious and playful of all toothless whales.
When breeding lagoons were discovered by former whalers, Gray whales were slaughtered to the brink of extinction.
Newborn were often harpooned so that mother whales would not leave and could be easily killed as well.
The Gray whale was nicknamed Devil Fish by whalers, because of the aggressive behaviour shown by females in the
desperate attempt to save their young.
Luckily, despite human stupidity, these gentle creatures have survived in sufficient numbers for the Pacific population
to recover, at least in North America.