The sole surviving species in the entire ancient family Eschrichtiidae, the gray whale filters its food like all baleen whales but, unlike any other large whale, it is a bottom feeder. Rolling on its side to sieve crustaceans and marine worms from the ocean floor, the gray whale creates billowing mud plumes.
Mottled gray in color, the whales have no dorsal fin and are often caked in barnacles and orange whale lice. They are 50 feet long and top out around 80,000 pounds. Little is known of their lifespan, but one dead female was estimated to be 75 to 80 years old, based on waxy ear plug layers.
Gray whales inhabit the shallow coastal ranges of the northern Pacific. There are two remaining populations of gray whales, the eastern and western north Pacific stocks. The eastern stock, which migrates along the West Coast of the U.S., is healthy, but the western is severely endangered, with as few as 100 individuals left.
The whales feed near the poles in the summer and move south in late autumn to breed. The eastern North Pacific stock travels 5,000 to 7,000 miles over the course of two or three months to the west coast of Baja California for mating season. In the winter months females and their calves can be seen in lagoons and coastal waters in this area. A female gray whale’s milk is 53 percent fat.
Nicknamed “devilfish” for ferociously fighting whaling vessels, gray whales must be adept at telling friend from foe. They now have a friendly reputation in Baja, often approaching whale-watching boats and allowing tourists to touch them and stroke their tongues. Unfortunately, ecotourism and whale-watching can cause stress for whales, and vessels have been known to strike them.
L. Clark Tate