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Gray Whales

Kingdom:

Animalia

Phylum:

Chordata

Class:

Mammalia

Order:

Cetacea

[Suborder]:

Mysticeti

Family:

Eschrichtiidae

Genus:

Eschrichtius

Species:

robustus


What is taxonomy?

Gray whales are mottled gray in color with a narrow V-shaped head.  They grow to a length of about 45 feet (13.7 meters) and produce sounds including moans,  rumbles and growls.  The most prevalent call is a series of knocking sounds.

Two gray whale calves were captured and housed in California's Sea World, each for a year.  Scientists gathered a great deal of information from these whales because they are the only baleen whales that have been held in captivity.  The whales were released after they were too big for their tanks.

Interesting Facts:

  • Gray whales used to be known as "devilfish" because they fiercely defend themselves and their calves against whalers.
  • There are now about 18,000 gray whales in the Eastern Pacific stock.   The eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales was removed from the endangered species list in 1994, however they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • The gray whale Western Pacific stock was believed to be extinct until 1925 when a few gray whales were seen off the coast of Siberia. There are still very few sightings of these whales

What should I know about gray whales?

Where do gray whales live?

The eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales prefers shallow, coastal waters and feeds over oceanic continental shelves around the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas between Alaska and Russia during the summer. In the winter, many of these gray whales migrate to the warm waters of Mexico's Baja California.  They migrate each year along the entire West Coast of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. 

How many gray whales are there?

The eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales was recently taken off the U.S. List of  Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.  Although the Atlantic stock of gray whales is basically extinct, the Eastern Pacific stock is doing well.  You can read more about gray whale stocks in the NMFS Alaska and Atlantic stock assessment reports.

How can I identify a gray whale?

Gray whales are mottled gray and grow to 40-50 feet (12.2-15.2 meters) in length.  Gray whales carry whale lice and parasitic barnacles that look like crabs. These parasites create yellow and white patches on the whales. Instead of a dorsal fin, gray whales have 9-13 bumps along their dorsal ridges.

How well can a gray whale see or hear?

It is thought that baleen whales (including gray whales) have excellent hearing, which is valuable in the dark ocean environment.  It is thought that gray whales probably have excellent hearing, especially at low frequencies, which is valuable in the dark ocean environment where vision is less useful. 

What do gray whales eat?

Gray whales filter their food through coarse baleen plates. Gray whales are unique in that they prefer prey that live near or on the sea floor. They suck sediment and prey from the sea floor by rolling on their sides and swimming slowly along sucking sediment and prey from the sea floor.

How do gray whales have their young?

Gray whales are probably old enough to mate around 8 years old. Females are pregnant for about 13 months approximately every two to four years. Calves are born able to swim and are known to double their weight in about three months, and double their length in about two years. A mother and calf form a very close attachment, with the calf spending the majority of its time swimming close to its mother.

How long do gray whales live? How do they die?

Because of an absence of teeth (which can be used to estimate age in other mammals), it is difficult to tell the age of a gray whale.

Gray whales do die of natural causes and are sometimes preyed upon by killer whales.  Pods of  killer whales have been known to attack gray whales throughout their range, especially young animals during migration.  Humans commercially hunted gray whales for oil, meat, and apparel materials (for corset stays, umbrella ribs, buggy whips etc.) from the 17th to early 20th centuries. Today, indigenous hunters practice subsistence whaling on a small-scale. Gray whales may also be harmed by pollution, ship strikes, or entanglement in fishing gear.

Where can I find more information about gray whales?

Books and the world wide web are excellent places to learn more about marine mammals. 

Books

  • Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R. Foster, Larry.   The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.  Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.  1983.
  • Leatherwood, Stephen.  Reeves, Randall R. Perrin, William F.   Evans, William E.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their Identification.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  1988.
  • Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska.  Alaska Sea Grant Program.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.  1992. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with NMML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recommendations.

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This portion of the NMML website is intended for a student audience and their educators.
Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.


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