The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustusis the official California marine mammal. There were once three stocks of gray whales—one in the Atlantic Ocean, long extinct; one in the western Pacific; and a third in the eastern Pacific.

The species makes well-documented seasonal migrations up and down the state’s coast and beyond, from the warm, shallow waters of Mexico to the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska. During their 19,300-kilometer (12,000-mile) journey, gray whales are often spotted from shore, making them a favorite of whale-watching companies. They are easily identified by their dark gray color, lumpy back, heart-shaped spout, and absent dorsal fin. They grow up to 15 meters (49 feet) long.

Gray whales are known to feed on a variety species. They specialize in bottom feeding, focusing on amphipods—small, shrimp-like organisms that live in tube structures in mud. They also ingest other mud-dwelling invertebrates, including tube worms and mollusks. 

To feed on these creatures, whales suck in water and mud and separate food morsels using their broom-like baleen plates.They then push the excess water and mud back into the ocean by using their tongue to scrape food from the baleen. 

As bottom feeders, gray whales prefer shallow waters and therefore migrate near the coast. Mothers birth one calf at a time, nursing them in the warm, shallow waters near Baja California, Mexico. 

Unfortunately, some of these characteristics of gray whales nearly led to their demise.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger is the gray whale census director for the Los Angeles, California, chapter of the American Cetacean Society.She says the hunting of gray whales in Baja California lagoons during the late 1800s and early 1900s was devastating. 

“The single biggest thing is that gray whales were targeted in their nursing lagoons,” she says.“So the whalers would go into the lagoons and kill the pregnant mothers, the nursing mothers, and the calves would die also.”

Eastern Pacific gray whales were hunted to near extinction in the mid-1800s and again in the early 1900s.Their blubber produced oil used for lamps.The animals were easily accessible to whalers because they remained close to the coast.The species became overhunted in Southern California and Mexico.As populations rebounded in the 1920s, whalers used “floating factories” to process the whales out at sea.

Today, Pacific gray whales are protected by international organizations and several government agencies.The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to regulate whaling throughout the world’s oceans.Gray whales received protections from the IWC in 1947.In the United States, the animals are further protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.Mexico transformed some of Baja California’s major breeding and nursing lagoons into a protected refuge zone. 

Limited whaling is still practiced by indigenous peoples in Alaska, Canada, and Mexico.There have also been some reports of illegal whaling by nations that do not accept IWC treaties.

After being near extinction in the 1950s, the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific has rebounded to an estimated 19,000 animals, considered to be a healthy stock.In 1994, the gray whale was “de-listed,” or removed from the Endangered Species List. 

Unfortunately, gray whales in the western Pacific, vulnerable to whalers from Japan and Russia, have not fared as well—their population remains at just under 100 animals. 

 

The Gray Whale: Past, Present, and Future
Gray whales, now on the rebound in the eastern Pacific, are often spotted off the coast of California during their spring migration to the cooler waters of Alaska.
amphipod
Noun

aquatic animal (crustacean) similar to shrimp.

Atlantic Ocean
Noun

one of Earth's four oceans, separating Europe and Africa from North and South America.

Noun

thick layer of fat under the skin of marine mammals.

calf
Noun

baby whale.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

crustacean
Noun

type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

decade
Noun

10 years.

demise
Noun

death or end.

Endangered Species Act
Noun

(1973) U.S. legislation that protects endangered species when they are threatened by human activity.

entangle
Noun

to tangle or twist together.

estimate
Verb

to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

extinct
Adjective

no longer existing.

Noun

process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

Noun

material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

illegal
Adjective

forbidden by law.

indigenous people
Noun

ethnic group that has lived in the same region for all of their known history.

International Whaling Commission
Noun

group of national governments that decides the rules for whaling.

invertebrate
Noun

animal without a spine.

Noun

shallow body of water that may have an opening to a larger body of water, but is also protected from it by a sandbar or coral reef.

law
Noun

public rule.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

mollusk
Noun

large phylum of invertebrate animal, all possessing a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, a radula (except for bivalves), and the structure of the nervous system. 

mother
Noun

female parent.

mud
Noun

wet soil.

nurse
Noun

person who cares for the sick.

Noun

large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

outlaw
Verb

to make illegal or against the law.

overhunt
Verb

to capture and kill enough animals to reduce their breeding population below sustainable levels.

Pacific Ocean
Noun

one of Earth's four oceans, bordered by North America, South America, Australia, Asia, and Antarctica.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

prevent
Verb

to keep something from happening.

profitable
Adjective

able to make money.

rebound
Verb

to bounce back or recover from a downfall.

salt mine
Noun

industrial site where salt is extracted from deposits within the Earth.

sea otter
Noun

marine mammal with thick fur native to the Pacific Ocean.

seasonal migration
Noun

movement of animals or other organisms determined by the changing weather or seasons, or in response to labor or climate conditions. For animals, seasonal migration usually refers to movement to a warmer climate during the winter and a cooler climate during the summer. For humans, seasonal migration may happen because of drivers such as crop and livestock management or tourism.

shallow
Adjective

not deep.

shore
Noun

coast.

stock
Noun

supply.

treaty
Noun

official agreement between groups of people.

tube worm
Noun

type of marine worm that cannot leave its protective tube.

vulnerable
Adjective

capable of being hurt.

whale
Noun

largest marine mammal species.

whaling
Noun

industry of hunting whales.