Perhaps the best known of the Oregon whale species, “Grays” enthrall residents and visitors alike as they make their yearly migrations along the coast. Numerous whale watching boats will trail the behemoths from a safe distance as their passengers click away with cameras as the whales breach and spout. The sharp-eyed observer can actually see Grays from land, particularly when standing on a high headland. The whales make two migrations along the west coast of North America. The first begins in October as they head south to avoid the ice packs of the north Pacific. Along the way, they will breed and then give birth in the warm waters of the Baja peninsula and the Gulf of California. By the following March or April, now with young in tow, the Grays will head north along the same route. It is believed that these whales have the longest migration pattern of any mammal on earth, up to 14,000 miles (22,000 km).
An extremely old species, fossil evidence of the Gray Whale extends back 500,000 years. Gray Whales are the last living member of the genus Eschrichtius and family Eschrichtiidae. Their closest living relatives are thought to be the Humpback and Fin Whales, although these species have very different skeletal structures. The Gray Whale can be identified by its slate-gray skin which is often covered with light gray mottling. The body is streamlined and tapers to a narrow head. There is a prominent lower jaw and a mouth that arches upward toward the eye. Instead of a dorsal fin, it has a prominent hump and a broad fluke measuring up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) across. Females are generally larger in size than males, with adult specimens reaching up to 46 feet (14 meters).
The whale’s mouth is filled with plates of baleen which it uses to sift out crustaceans and tube worms. To feed, the whale will dive to the ocean floor and scoop out great mouthfuls of mud. Water and sediment is then forced out through the baleen, leaving behind the food. Gray Whales have few natural predators, with the Orca (“Killer Whale”) being the most dangerous. Whale spotters will often notice Orca-inflicted wounds and scars on Grays at sea.
Gray Whales stay mostly in the shallow coastal waters from Canada to Mexico. This is especially true when mothers are accompanying their calves on their northern migration back to the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Russia. Their preference for coastal waters makes them a frequently spotted species.
There are only two major areas where Gray Whales still exist in the world’s oceans. The west coast of the Americas contains the largest population, with a smaller one in the western Pacific near Asia. Due to whale hunting, the Gray population in this latter area was considered critically endangered. Grays no longer exist in the Atlantic Ocean. In American waters, Gray Whales are protected by both federal law and international agreement and they have made a remarkable recovery thanks to international between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Today, it is estimated that over 20,000 Gray Whales live in the coastal waters of the Americas. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994.