The gray whale is the only baleen whale in the family Eschrichtiidae. These whales are found almost entirely in the North Pacific Ocean, although recently have been located in the Southern Hemisphere.
1. Scientific & Common Names
4. Present Status
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Artiodactyla
Infraorder - Cetacea
Family - Eschrichtiidae
Genus - Eschrichtius
Species - E. robustus
Common Names – Gray Whale, Grey Whale, Greyback Whale, Pacific Gray Whale, California Gray Whale, Devilfish, Mussel-Digger, Scrag Whale
Gray whales, as their name implies, are largely gray in color, with light and dark patches and mottling over its body. The skin of gray whales is often pock-marked and scarred. Though they can grow to 50 feet, they are relatively small compared with most other baleen whales. They are filter feeders, with baleen plates instead of teeth in their mouths.
Females give birth to a single calf every two to three years. Gestation takes just over a year. Birthing and calf raising is timed to coincide with the whales' annual migrations, when they travel south to warmer waters.
Gray whales feed on tiny crustaceans on the sea floor. The gray whale digs through the mud with its head, sifting out its food from the sediment with its baleen. Gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any animal, traveling north to feed and south to give birth. These migrations can be as long as 5,000 miles. The only other animal that engages in such a long migration is the humpback whale.
Gray whales were hunted by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest in Washington and Vancouver, and later by European settlers, though they were considered inferior to other whale types. Japanese whalers also hunted the species in the Western Pacific, and it is believed that whales in the North Atlantic (where they were known as "scrag whales") were hunted to extinction some time in the 1700s.
Today, commercial whaling is banned, but indigenous populations are still allowed to hunt gray whales using traditional methods. This can be quite dangerous, as these whales will fight vigorously to defend themselves and earned the name "devilfish" among whalers. Today, gray whales are important for ecotourism, as whale watching is a popular activity during the migration months.
Gray whales have been occasionally kept briefly in captivity, though their size poses many challenges and they are usually released once they outgrow their tanks. Typically, captive animals are injured or beached whales, and they are released back into the wild after being rehabilitated. A gray whale known as J.J., at 31 feet in length, is the biggest animal ever kept in captivity. She was kept at Sea World in San Diego after beaching herself, and was released upon outgrowing their facilities.
Overall, gray whales are a "Least Concern" species. However, the Western Pacific population is critically endangered and estimated at just over a hundred individuals. The whale is also completely extinct in the North Atlantic, though there is evidence that it once thrived there. Some scientists have proposed relocating Pacific gray whales into the Atlantic to restore them to their historic range. Current threats to gray whales, beyond their natural predator the killer whale, include human activity such as toxic spills, fishing nets (which can entangle the whales), ocean noise from boats and other vessels (which disrupts migrations), oil and gas exploration (which disrupts feeding grounds), and climate change.
Princeton Field Guides: Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals; Shirihai & Jarrett; 2016
Guide to Marine Mammals of the World; Reeves, Stewart, Clapham & Powell; 2008