During the whaling industry, which occurred between the 17th – 20th centuries the gray whale was hunted largely for its oil until the point of near became extinction.
Fortunately with the aid of organizations and the government marine mammals such as the gray whale are now a protected species and hunting them is considered illegal.
Today their numbers have grown and it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 gray whales currently in existence since the end of the commercial whaling era.
Physical Characteristics and Appearance
When fully grown the gray whale can grow to lengths of over 50 ft. long, however their average size is closer to 44 – 48 ft. long.
As with other baleen whales the female gray whales usually grow slightly larger than their male counterparts.
In terms of weight these marine mammal can measure in at up to 40 tons when fully developed.
The gray whale is a dark grayish slate color with white patches covering its body, hence its name.
In many cases these marine mammals may also be covered in parasites and other organisms causing their skin to look discolored and giving the gray whale the appearance of crusty ocean rock.
In order to stay warm in cold waters the gray whale has a thick of insulated blubber which measure up to 10 inches thick.
Compared to most other baleen whales, their baleen bristles are fairly short.
Also, instead of having a dorsal fin like other species of whale, the gray whale has a small dorsal hump located down the far end of its back.
Swimming is assisted by the use of fan like flukes which the whale moves up and down to propel itself through the water.
As with other cetaceans the gray whale also has a pair of flippers to help it steer and turn when swimming.
Because these whales belong to the baleen whale suborder they possess baleen plates with bristles attached to them which they use to filter their prey from the water.
Diet and Hunting Methods
Gray whales are bottom feeders and hunt for their prey by swimming to the bottom of the ocean, turning on its side and scooping up sediments from the sea floor.
Once their prey rises from the sea floor these marine mammals will use their baleen bristles to filter through the water while capturing and trapping their prey in their baleen bristles, hence the term filter feeding.
Because their are small spaces between the bristles water can pass through the bristles without a problem, however the bristles are packed tightly enough that they prevent their prey from escaping.
Their primary diet consists of eating benthic crustaceans, however they will consume a variety of small prey that is scooped up into their path.
While adult gray whales will benthic crustaceans and other types of prey baby whales are fed milk until they can hunt for food themselves.
In fact a baby gray whale can consume as much as 80 gallons of milk per day.
Habitat and Migration
Gray whales are often found swimming in the eastern north pacific ocean and near Korea in the western north pacific ocean, however recent spottings in areas such as the Mediterranean sea suggests that these marine mammals may begin repopulating areas that may have become abandoned due to previous whaling activities.
Every October small groups of gray whales make long migration trips from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas and migrate to the Baja peninsula of mexico and the southern gulf of California where they mate and bare their offspring.
During migration trips as many as 20,000 gray whales can be seen swimming in the ocean.
The migration trip takes an average of 2 -3 months to complete and is considered to be one of the longest migrations trip of any animal lasting 9,000 – 16,000 miles., although it seems that on average their migration trips are closer to 8,000 – 10,000 miles.
During these trips the gray whales will travel night and day moving at an average speed of 5 mph or less until they reach their destination.
Once the arrive at their mating grounds they will begin courting other whales and those that are pregnant will begin giving birth to their young.
When mating season ends they begin their journey back to the eastern north and western north pacific ocean to feed, relax and prepare for their next mating season.
Social Structure and Communication
When it comes to communication the gray whale communicates using loud low pitched moans, whines and croaks.
These sounds can be heard over great distances and even underwater allowing other gray whales to hear and communicate with one another quite effectively.
Unfortunately not much is known or understood about the vocal communication of gray whales.
In addition to communicating vocally gray whales are also known to breach the water, spyhop and lobtail (slap their flukes against the water).
Reproduction and Lifespan
The typical gestation period for a female gray whale (the period from conception to birth) lasts 13.5 months.
Most gray whales are born around mid January and are born at an average of length of 12 – 14 feet long at birth.
After birth the baby gray whales will drink milk which is made up of over %50 fat and is produced by their mothers mammary glands.
The milk that is produced by the mother is high in nutrients in order to give the child all of the nutrition it needs to develop into a healthy young whale.
This nursing/feeding period for the baby whale lasts for about 6 – 8 months or until lactation stops.
After 8 years the young gray whales will reach sexually maturity and can begin mating and reproducing.
In terms of lifespan a healthy gray whale is estimated to an average lifespan of 50 – 70 years.
The gray whale was initially found living in three areas throughout the northern hemisphere which are, the eastern north pacific ocean, the western pacific ocean and the north Atlantic coast, however these whales are currently considered extinct in the north Atlantic.
In 1994 the gray whale was taken off of the untied states endangered list and are currently protected by international law.
10 Insightful gray whale facts
1) The gray whale makes up one of around 90 known species of cetacea in existence today.
2) Because the gray whale is a marine mammal they are warm-blooded, breathe air, give birth and produce milk to feed their young.
3) The scientific name for the gray whale is, “Eschrichtius robustus”.
4) Due to their aggressive fighting behaviors when whalers would try to capture these marine mammals whalers would refer to gray whales as, “devil-fish”.
5) Baby gray whales can consume as much as 300 gallons of milk per day during their first year of birth.
6) Once a hunted and endangered species the gray whale is now considered one of the most popular marine mammals to those who participating in the whale watching industry.
7) A fully grown gray whale can weigh just as much or more than 5 adult elephants.
8) Unlike toothed whales that are born with a single blowhole the gray whale possess two blowholes.
9) The earliest ancestors of the gray whale existed over 30 million years ago.
10) The only known natural predators to the gray whale is a pod of killer whales. In terms of other predators gray whales may also face occasional attacks by whale poachers and hunters.