8 Things You Should Know About Gray Whales
They migrate up and down the Pacific Coast, moving north or south along the shore throughout the year. If you’ve visited the Pacific Coast, you may have seen a few. Here’s what’s truly interesting about these 35-ton hunks of blubber migrating past our coast.
Almost All Pacific Gray Whales are Born In Three Places
Virtually the entire eastern Pacific population is born in one of three protected lagoons on the west coast of Baja California: Scammon’s Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Magdalena Bay. The Mexican government carefully manages access to these lagoons when the whales are giving birth and raising the young until they’re big enough to migrate.
Now That’s A Migration
The Gray Whale migration is one of the longest of any mammal in the world: about 14,000 miles from the warm birthing lagoons to the food-rich Bering Sea in spring and back again in the fall. They do that migration at the mellow pace of 5 mph, taking three months each direction: meaning they spend about half their lives migrating.
They’re Sticking Around More
Not all whales make the entire journey to the Arctic. A few hundred stop along the coast between northern California and Central British Columbia and spend the summers feeding there. This group is mostly male and is growing, making for good summer whale watching.
Unique Culinary Tastes
Gray Whales have a unique way of feeding. Other Baleen Whales suck plankton and krill from the water column: Grays swim to the bottom, grab a mouthful of sand, and push it through their baleen to capture shrimp, amphipods, and other critters. This keeps them close to shore, where they’re easily observed from coastal headlands or whale-watching boats.
Don’t Get On Their Bad Side
Whalers called Gray Whales “devilfish” because they would actively attack whaling boat and surface under small whaleboats, especially when calves were threatened. This aggressive behavior made them one of the last species to be hunted commercially despite their habit of staying close to shore. They’re also known to aggressively charge pods of Orca.
…Even Though Some Are Friendly
With the end of whaling, some Gray Whales have gotten friendly. They generally seem undisturbed by kayakers, even when with calves. In the birthing lagoons, some whales have begun to approach small skiffs and allow themselves to be touched by humans, a behavior first reported in 1976. They often become more friendly as the birthing season progresses, perhaps as the calves become more curious and the mothers are some less protective when the calves are bigger.
Surf’s Up, Dude!
In winter, not all the whales stay in the Baja lagoons. In the possible whale equivalent of “poker night”, many males head to the outer coast, and often are seen surfing the waves outside the lagoons. A word to board surfers: when you’re outweighed by 35 tons, give up the wave.
On the Rebound
When the birthing lagoons were discovered in the mid 1800s, gray whales were hunted extensively, and the Atlantic population is extinct. Since whaling was ended in 1947 and whale-watching became a profitable industry, the population has rebounded to nearly 30,000 whales, almost it’s original size.
Give Them Room
If you’re on the water with Gray Whales, give them the right of way. Approach them from slowly from the side, don’t’ come closer than 100 yards, and don’t encircle them. If they want to come closer, they will.