Gray Whale

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Gray Whale
Conservation status: Lower risk

A Gray Whale spy-hopping
Scientific classification
Species:E. robustus
Binomial name
Eschrichtius robustus
Lilljeborg, 1861
Missing image
Gray Whale range

Gray Whale range

The Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is a whale which travels between feeding and breeding grounds yearly. It reaches a length of about 15 meters, a weight of 36 tons and an age of 50-60 years. Gray Whales were once called devil fish because of their fighting behavior when hunted. The Gray Whale is the sole species in the genus Eschrichtius, which in turn is the sole genus in the family Eschrichtiidae.


Population, distribution and migration

Two Pacific Ocean populations of Gray Whales exist: one small population travelling between the Sea of Okhotsk and southern Korea, and a larger one travelling between the waters off Alaska and the Baja California. A third, North Atlantic, population was hunted to extinction 300 years ago.

In the fall, the California Gray Whale starts a 2-3 month, 8 000 – 11 000 km trip south along the west coast of the United States and Mexico. The animals travel in small groups. The destinations of the whales are the coastal waters of Baja California and the southern Sea of Cortez, where they breed and the young are born. The breeding behavior is complex and often involves three or more animals. The gestation period is about one year, and females have calves every other year. The calf is born head-first and measures about 4 metres in length at birth. It is believed that the shallow waters in the lagoons there protect the newborn from sharks. After several weeks, the return trip starts. This roundtrip of 16,000 - 22,000km, at an average speed of 10km/h is believed to be the longest yearly migration of any mammal. A whale watching industry has sprung up along the coast.


The whale feeds mainly on benthic crustaceans which it eats sideways from the sea floor. It is classified as a baleen whale and has a baleen, or whalebone, which acts like a sieve to capture amphipods taken in along with sand, water and other material. Mostly, the animal feeds in the northern waters during the summer; during its migration trip, it mainly lives off its extensive fat reserves.

Physical description

A Gray Whale viewed from above
A Gray Whale viewed from above

Gray Whales are covered by characteristic gray-white patterns, scars left by parasites which drop off in the cold feeding grounds.

Conservation and human interaction

The only predators of adult Gray Whales are humans and orcas. After the California Gray Whales' breeding grounds were discovered in 1857, the animals were hunted to near extinction there. After harvesting became inefficient because of dwindling numbers, the population recovered slowly, but with the advent of factory ships in the 20th century, the numbers declined again. Gray Whales have been granted protection from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1946, and are no longer hunted on a large scale.

Limited hunting of Gray Whales has continued since that time, however, primarily in the Chukotka region of eastern Siberia, where large numbers of Gray Whales spend the summer months. This hunt has been allowed under an "aboriginal/subsistence whaling" exception to the commercial-hunting ban. Anti-whaling groups have protested the hunt, saying that the meat from the whales is not for traditional native consumption, but is used instead to feed animals in government-run fur farms; they cite annual catch numbers that rose dramatically during the 1940s, at the time when state-run fur farms were being established in the region. Although the Soviet government denied these charges as recently as 1987, in recent years the Russian government has acknowledged the feeding of Gray Whale meat to animals on fur farms in the region. The Russian IWC delegation has said that the hunt is justified under the aboriginal/subsistence exemption, since the fur farms provide a necessary economic base for the region's native population.

Currently, the annual quota for the Gray Whale catch in the region is 140 whales per year. A smaller quota of 4 whales per year was established for the Makah Indian tribe of Washington State at the IWC's 1997 meeting, but with the exception of a single Gray Whale killed in 1999, the Makah people have been prevented from conducting Gray Whale hunts by a series of legal challenges, culminating in a United States federal appeals court decision in December 2002 that said the National Marine Fisheries Serivce must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before allowing the hunt to go forward.

As of 2001, the population of California Gray Whales has grown back to about 26,000 animals.

The Atlantic population of Gray Whales was hunted to extinction in the 17th century.

Gray Whales in captivity

In 1972, a 3 month old Gray Whale named Gigi was captured for brief study, and then released off San Diego.

In January 1997, the new-born baby whale J.J. was found helpless near the coast of Los Angeles, 4.2 meters long and 800 kg heavy. Nursed back to health in SeaWorld San Diego, she was released into the Pacific Ocean on March 31, 1998, 9 meters long and 8500 kg heavy. She shed her radio transmitter packs three days later.

In the news

Perhaps the most famous piece of Gray Whale lore dates from 1970 when, a long-dead, 8 ton, 45 foot (18 m) long specimen beached itself south of Florence, Oregon. For a time it was a curiosity to local residents. As the beach is public right-of-way, it was the duty of the Oregon State Highway Division to dispose of it. They filled the animal with a half-ton of dynamite. On Thursday, November 12, the dynamite was set off, and the blast did not go toward the Pacific as planned. No one was hurt, but a car was crushed by falling blubber. Onlookers were covered with noxious-smelling bits of dead whale [1, 2]. See also: Exploding whale

  1. On Oregon's exploding whale (
  2. Film of Oregon's exploding whale (

A lone gray whale was seen in spring 2005 on the eastern coastline of Japan, and around Tokyo bay. It attracted crowds of whale watchers in April, but later became entangled in a fisherman's net, drowned and was washed up in early May.

External links

Marine Mammal Hunting. Marine mammal hunting is part of the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous population in coastal Chukotkan communities. Native peoples are provided with an annual quota to procure 169 whales, 10,000 ringed seals, and 3,000 walruses. Marine mammal by-products are used as food in fox ranches.

Template:Commonsda:Grhval de:Grauwal fr:Baleine grise nl:Grijze walvis ja:コククジラ fi:Harmaavalas sv:Grval


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