E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Eschrichtius robustus (Lilljeborg, 1861)
Gray Whale; Grey Whale
Family: Eschrichtiidae
Species account author: Valerie Shore
Extracted from Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of British Columbia, Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

© Leigh Hilbert  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #12699)

Species Information

The Pacific gray whale is the comeback champion of the great whales. Twice in the last 150 years it has come dangerously close to extinction, yet today it is as abundant as ever off the west coast of North America. The gray whale looks quite different from any other whale. Its body is robust and tube-shaped. It is gray in colour, but is covered with whitish blotches, giving it a distinct mottled appearance. Its narrow, triangular head is slightly arched, or bowed, on the top and the long mouthline curves downward. Gray whales have no dorsal fins. Instead they have a low hump followed by a series of small knobs running along their back. These knobs are very easy to see just before the whale dives and are one of the best ways to identify a gray whale. Fully grown, a gray whale can be 14 metres long and weigh 35 tonnes. Its blow, or spout, is low and bushy; some people describe it as heartshaped. The gray whale’s skin, particularly around the head, flippers and tail, is covered with clusters of round, white barnacles. These harmless hitchhikers are joined for the ride by thousands of orange or yellow whale lice, small crab-like animals about the size of a large thumbnail. The lice scurry among the barnacles, eating dead skin shed by their whale host. Up to 100,000 lice have been found on a single whale

Biology

Behaviour

When migrating or feeding, gray whales are not as active on the surface as some other whales. Usually, they blow three to five times and then lift their flukes and dive for five minutes or more. In the breeding lagoons, they are more playful, occasionally poking their heads out of the water, or leaping in a full breach. Mating can be very lively, involving several whales at a time. Newborn calves are about 5 metres long and weigh up to 900 kilograms. Female gray whales are fiercely protective of their young, a trait which led whalers to nickname them ‘devilfish.’
Biology

Gray whales are baleen whales so use their baleen to filter food from the water. They feed in a number of ways, but are specially suited for bottom-feeding. The whale dives to the ocean floor, turns on its side, and sucks up a mouthful of sand and mud. With its short baleen, it filters out and eats tiny crab-like animals called amphipods, or worms that live in the muck. As the whale feeds, it shoots out huge plumes of mud, easily seen from boats and aircraft. Because the baleen is usually more worn down on the right side it appears that most gray whales eat “right-handed”!

Distribution

Global Range

Compared to most other whales, the gray whale is easy to find because it follows a very predictable migration route close to shore. Gray whales are only found in the north Pacific and spend their lives travelling between summer feeding grounds in the north and winter breeding grounds in the south. In fact, the 16,000 kilometre round-trip migration of the gray whale is one of the longest of any mammal on earth. Gray whales seen off B.C. spend the winter in or near one of several lagoons on the coast of Baja, Mexico. There, the adults mate or give birth, but usually do not eat. In early spring, they swim north to the rich feeding grounds of the Bering and Chukchi Seas, occasionally stopping to eat along the way. In small groups, they follow the coastline, passing the west coast of Vancouver Island in March and April. Sometimes, a few stray into inside waters. They’ve even been seen amid the busy boat traffic of Vancouver Harbour and around the mouth of the Fraser River
Distribution in British Columbia

Some gray whales are known to stay in B.C. coastal waters for the entire summer, poking about in shallow sandy bays and along stretches of exposed rocky coast. These ‘resident’ whales join up with the southern migration, sometime between November and January. Southbound whales are not easy to see, since they usually travel more quickly, and further offshore, than in the spring.

Conservation

Conservation Issues

The gray whale is one of the world’s wildlife success stories. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial whalers slaughtered them in the thousands, both on their migration and in their breeding lagoons. Before whaling, there were an estimated 24,000 in the eastern North Pacific. By early this century, there may have been as few as 2,000. Since it was protected in 1946, the gray whale has recovered to an estimated 26,000 animals. Because they can be seen from shore as well as boats, gray whales are probably the most ‘watched’ whale on the Pacific coast of North America. After a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction, the gray whale is now a sure sign of spring for winter-weary British Columbians.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
NativeS3BlueSC/E/NAR (May 2004)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

Two populations of the Grey Whale are recognized--the endangered Eastern Pacific Grey Whale and the Western Pacific Grey Whale--and these have been considered genetically distinct. Whales from the western population are believed to spend winters in the South China Seas, while whales from the eastern population spend winters in their breeding grounds off Baja, California. However, recent observations of a tagged Western Pacific Grey Whale has shown that at least some individuals spend winters off the coast of North America. In the winter of 2010/2011 a Western Pacific grey whale (named Flex by researchers), tagged in the fall of 2010 off the coast of Russia, was tracked moving across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and travelling south along the coast of North America. Additional investigation by whale researchers has recently shown that Flex was also observed in the winter of 2008 off the coast of Vancouver Island. These discoveries may mean that the relationship between the two populations of Grey Whales is closer than believed.

View a map of Flex's migration route.

Read more about Oregon State University's marine mammal tracking project.

Read the Vancouver Aquarium page on the Grey Whale and view a BC distribution map.

Read the American Cetacean Society Grey Whale fact sheet, and view their global distribution map for this species.

Read the IUCN information page on this species.

Additional note prepared by E-Fauna BC

Additional Photo Sources

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2019. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2020-02-19 8:06:39 PM]
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