Gray Whale
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44 to 49 feet (13.5 to 15 m)
Length
30,000 to 40,000 lbs (27,215 to 36,287 kg)
Weight

About

#Mammals #Whales

The Gray Whale, scientifically known as Eschrichtius robustus, is a magnificent marine mammal belonging to the Animal Kingdom’s phylum Chordata and class Mammalia. It falls under the Balaenopteridae family, which also includes other baleen whales such as the humpback whale and blue whale. Gray Whales are renowned for their annual migrations and distinctive appearance.

These whales have a robust body, covered in mottled gray skin with patches of white barnacles and whale lice. They possess a characteristic hump and series of knuckles along their dorsal ridge, leading to their nickname “Devil Fish.” The Gray Whale has baleen plates instead of teeth, which they use to filter small crustaceans and plankton from the water while feeding.

Gray Whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling over 10,000 miles round trip between their feeding grounds in the Arctic and their breeding and calving grounds along the coast of Baja California, Mexico. This journey is essential for their survival and plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.

Conservation Concerns

The conservation status of the Gray Whale is relatively stable, and it is not currently assessed separately on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. However, like many marine mammals, Gray Whales face threats from human activities, including habitat degradation, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, and collisions with ships.

Efforts to protect Gray Whales and their habitats include regulations on whale watching, marine protected areas, and international agreements to mitigate shipping impacts. Monitoring population trends and conducting research on their migration patterns and behaviors are essential for implementing effective conservation measures. While not currently facing significant conservation concerns, continued efforts are necessary to ensure the long-term survival of Gray Whales in their natural environment.

Threatened:
Extinct
Critically Endangered
Endangered
Vulnerable
Near Threatened
Least Concern

Physical Characteristics

The Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus), a species once near extinction but now a conservation success story, undertakes one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling between feeding grounds in the Arctic and breeding grounds off the coast of Mexico. This baleen whale is an integral part of marine ecosystems, known for its bottom-feeding behavior that plays a crucial role in ocean floor nutrient cycling.

Size and Weight:

  • Length: Adult gray whales typically measure between 44 to 49 feet (13.4 to 14.9 meters) in length, with females slightly larger than males.
  • Weight: They weigh approximately 30 to 40 tons (27,215 to 36,287 kilograms), with some large females reaching up to 45 tons (40,823 kilograms).

Physical Characteristics:

  • Skin Color and Texture: The gray whale’s skin is a mottled gray color with distinctive white patches and scars from parasites and other marine organisms that attach to their skin. Their body is covered in barnacles and orange whale lice, giving their skin a rough, pitted texture that is unique among cetaceans.
  • Head and Baleen: The gray whale has a robust, elongated head with a strongly arched lower jaw. Unlike other baleen whales, gray whales have short baleen plates with coarse bristles used for filtering small crustaceans and benthic organisms from the mud and silt on the ocean floor.
  • Flippers and Tail: Their pectoral flippers are broad and paddle-shaped, aiding in maneuverability. The tail fluke is wide and deeply notched, providing powerful propulsion for their long migrations.
  • Blow: The gray whale’s blow is a distinctive heart-shaped mist, caused by the whale’s twin blowholes when it exhales air upon surfacing. This feature is often visible from a distance and is a telltale sign of the whale’s presence.
  • Diving and Feeding Behavior: Gray whales are known for their bottom-feeding habits. They often dive to the sea floor, roll onto their sides, and scoop up sediment and water, filtering out their food and leaving plume-like clouds of mud behind, which is an intriguing sight for observers.

The Gray Whale’s annual migration offers a spectacular opportunity for whale watching, contributing to ecotourism and raising awareness about marine conservation. Their recovery from near extinction is a testament to the success of wildlife protection efforts and international cooperation in marine conservation.

Reproduction

The reproductive cycle of the Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) encompasses several stages, pivotal for the continuation of the species:

  1. Mating and Courtship:
    • Mating typically occurs during the winter migration to the warmer breeding grounds off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. Courtship behaviors can be complex, often involving multiple whales in what is known as a “mating courtship group.”
    • Vocalizations and physical contact play a significant role in courtship, facilitating the formation of mating pairs.
  2. Gestation:
    • The gestation period for gray whales lasts approximately 13 to 14 months. This extended gestation ensures that calves are born well-developed and ready to undertake the migration back to the feeding grounds with their mothers.
  3. Birth and Maternal Care:
    • Gray whales typically give birth to a single calf, with the event occurring in the shallow, warm waters of the lagoons. Twins are extremely rare.
    • At birth, calves are about 15 feet (4.5 meters) long and weigh approximately 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (680 to 907 kilograms). They are born tail-first to prevent drowning and are able to swim almost immediately.
    • Calves nurse on rich, fatty milk, gaining up to 60 pounds (27 kilograms) a day. The nursing period lasts for about 6 to 7 months, during which the calf remains closely bonded with its mother, learning essential survival skills.
  4. Sexual Maturity:
    • Gray whales reach sexual maturity at approximately 8 years of age. However, they may not start breeding until they are physically larger, which could be several years later.

The reproductive cycle of gray whales is closely tied to their migratory patterns, ensuring that calves are born in the safest possible environments. The significant investment in each calf, through a long gestation and extended period of maternal care, underscores the importance of these reproductive behaviors in the survival of gray whale populations.

Lifespan

Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) have a lifespan that reflects their resilience and adaptability as marine mammals:

  1. Lifespan in the Wild:
    • In their natural habitats, gray whales can live up to 70 years, with an average lifespan ranging between 50 to 60 years. Precise age determination in gray whales can be challenging, but studies involving the examination of earplugs (a buildup of wax in the whale’s ear) have provided insights into their longevity.
  2. Lifespan in Captivity:
    • Gray whales are not typically kept in captivity due to their size, migratory nature, and specialized habitat requirements. There are very few instances of gray whales being held in captivity, and those were short-lived and not indicative of their potential lifespan in such conditions.
  3. Biggest Threats:
    • Ship Strikes: As gray whales often migrate and feed in coastal waters, they are at risk of collisions with large vessels, which can result in serious injury or death.
    • Entanglement in Fishing Gear: Gray whales can become entangled in fishing nets and other marine debris, leading to injury, starvation, or drowning.
    • Climate Change: Changes in ocean temperatures and ice cover can affect the distribution of their prey, altering their feeding grounds and migratory routes.
    • Pollution: Chemical pollutants and plastics in the ocean can harm gray whales through ingestion or absorption, impacting their health and reproductive success.
    • Whaling: Although commercial whaling of gray whales has ceased in most parts of the world, historical whaling significantly reduced their populations. The Western North Pacific population, or Korean gray whale, is still considered critically endangered.

Conservation efforts and international regulations have been crucial in the recovery and protection of gray whale populations, particularly the Eastern North Pacific population. Ongoing research and conservation initiatives aim to address the threats faced by gray whales and ensure their continued presence in the world’s oceans.

Eating Habits

Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) have unique feeding habits that distinguish them from other baleen whales, adapted to their benthic (bottom-feeding) lifestyle:

  1. Diet:
    • Gray whales primarily feed on small crustaceans, including amphipods and mysids, along with other benthic organisms. Their diet is largely composed of these bottom-dwelling invertebrates, which they consume by filtering through the sediment on the ocean floor.
  2. Feeding Techniques:
    • One of the most distinctive feeding behaviors of gray whales is their side-swimming technique. They typically roll onto their right side (although some may prefer their left) and swim along the ocean bottom, scooping up sediment and water into their mouths.
    • Once their mouth is full, gray whales close their jaws and use their baleen plates to filter out the mud and water, trapping the prey inside. This method leaves behind distinctive trails or pits on the ocean floor, which are often used by researchers to study their feeding patterns.
  3. Feeding Grounds:
    • Gray whales undertake long migrations to reach their feeding grounds, primarily located in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic and the Bering Sea. During the summer feeding season, they spend most of their time feeding to accumulate energy reserves in the form of blubber. These reserves are crucial for their migration and breeding season when they may not feed at all.
  4. Adaptations for Feeding:
    • Their baleen plates are shorter and more coarse than those of other filter feeders, adapted specifically for trapping small invertebrates from the mud. Additionally, the gray whale’s robust body and strong neck muscles are well-suited for their unique method of bottom-feeding.

The feeding habits of gray whales not only highlight their ecological role in marine ecosystems but also their remarkable adaptation to exploiting the rich benthic environments of their Arctic feeding grounds.

Uniqueness

The Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) exhibits several unique characteristics that set it apart from other marine mammals, making it a fascinating subject of study and conservation:

  1. Remarkable Migration: Gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling up to 12,000 miles (about 19,312 kilometers) round-trip annually between their breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, and their feeding grounds in the Arctic’s cold waters. This epic journey is a testament to their endurance and navigational skills.
  2. Benthic Feeding Behavior: Unlike most other baleen whales that feed in the water column, gray whales are bottom feeders. They exhibit a unique feeding technique by rolling onto their sides (typically the right side) and sucking in sediments from the sea floor to filter out small crustaceans and benthic organisms. This behavior leaves distinctive feeding marks on the ocean floor.
  3. Lack of Dorsal Fin: Gray whales are easily identifiable by their lack of a dorsal fin. Instead, they have a series of 6 to 12 knuckle-like bumps along their dorsal ridge toward the tail, which is unique among whales.
  4. Mottled Skin Appearance: Their skin is dark gray and covered with patches of white barnacles and orange lice, giving them a mottled appearance. These external parasites contribute to the whale’s distinct look and can help researchers identify individuals.
  5. Vocalizations and Sound Production: Gray whales produce a variety of sounds for communication and possibly navigation. Their vocalizations include moans, groans, and rumbles, although they are not as acoustically complex as those of some other whale species.
  6. Conservation Success Story: Once near extinction due to whaling, the Eastern North Pacific population of gray whales has made a significant comeback, thanks to international conservation efforts. This recovery is hailed as one of the great success stories of marine conservation.
  7. Interaction with Humans: Gray whales are known for their curious behavior around humans, often approaching boats and allowing whale watchers to witness them up close, especially in their breeding lagoons in Mexico.

These distinctive features highlight the gray whale’s unique adaptations to its environment and lifestyle, underscoring the importance of continued conservation efforts to ensure the survival and health of this remarkable species.

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FAQ’s

1. How fast does the gray whale swim?

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are not known for their speed compared to other whale species. They typically swim at a leisurely pace, averaging around 3 to 5 miles per hour (4.8 to 8 kilometers per hour) during migration.

However, they can briefly increase their speed to escape predators or during mating displays, reaching speeds of up to 10 to 11 miles per hour (16 to 18 kilometers per hour). Despite their relatively slow cruising speed, gray whales are well-adapted for long-distance migrations, covering thousands of miles between their feeding and breeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean.

2. What whale species is most like the gray whale?

The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is most similar to the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) in terms of behavior and habitat preference.

Both species are primarily benthic feeders, meaning they feed on organisms near the ocean floor. They also have similar migration patterns, traveling long distances between their feeding and breeding grounds.

Additionally, both gray whales and bowhead whales are known for their distinctive appearance, with robust bodies and arched lower jawlines. However, genetically, they are distinct species belonging to different genera within the family Balaenidae.

3. How deep and long does the gray whale dive?

Gray whales are known to perform shallow dives, typically reaching depths of around 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 meters) while feeding on the seafloor. However, they are also capable of diving deeper, with recorded dives reaching depths of up to 150 feet (45 meters).

These whales generally spend around 3 to 5 minutes underwater during a dive, although they can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes if necessary. Gray whales typically migrate long distances, covering up to 10,000 to 12,000 miles (16,000 to 19,000 kilometers) round-trip between their breeding and feeding grounds along the coasts of North America.

Sources
  • Britannica, Gray Whale, https://www.britannica.com/animal/gray-whale, February 2024.
  • Burnie, David & Wilson, Don, Animal, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.
  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet and Wilson, Don, Mammals, Smithsonian Handbooks, New York, NY.
  • Hickman et al, Integrated Principle of Zoology, McGraw Hill, Boston.