Cornforth Images

Gray Whale

Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) have a streamlined body, with a narrow, tapered head. They are dark gray in color and covered by gray-white patterns, scars left by parasites which drop off in the cold feeding grounds. They lack a dorsal fin, instead bearing several dorsal ‘knuckles’. They reach a length of up to 52 ft (16 m), a weight of 36 tons (32,000 kg), and an age of 50-60 years. They are the sole species in the genus Eschrichtius. Gray whales are distributed in an Eastern Pacific (American) population and a critically endangered Western Pacific (Asian) population. A third population in the North Atlantic became extinct in the 17th century.

The Eastern Pacific or California gray whale population numbers between 20,000 and 22,000 whales. They travel between the Bering and Chukchi Seas and Baja Mexico. In the fall, the California gray whale starts a 2-3 month, 5,000-7,000 miles (8,000-11,000 km) trip south along the west coast of North America. The animals travel in small groups. The destinations of the whales are the coastal waters of Baja California where they breed and give birth. Females bear a single calf, at intervals of 2 or more years. Courtship and mating behavior are complex, and frequently involve 3 or more whales of mixed sexes. After several weeks, the return trip starts.

After the California gray whales’ breeding grounds were discovered in 1857, the animals were hunted to near extinction. Gray whales have been granted protection from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1949. Limited hunting of grays has continued under an “aboriginal/subsistence whaling” exception to the commercial-hunting ban in north-eastern Russia with an annual quota of 140 whales. Anti-whaling groups have protested the hunt, saying that the meat from the whales is not for traditional consumption, but is used instead to feed animals in government-run fur farms. A quota of 4 whales per year was established for the Makah Indian tribe of Washington at the IWC’s 1997 meeting, but with the exception of a single whale killed in 1999, the Makah people have been prevented from whaling by a series of legal challenges. On September 8, 2007, five members of the Makah tribe illegally shot a gray whale using high powered rifles and were convicted in June 2008.

Whale watching is very popular in southern California and Baja Mexico. The best locations to photograph gray whales in Baja are Laguna San Ignacio, Magdalena Bay, and Scammon’s Lagoon. ‘Friendly’ whales are most commonly encountered at San Ignacio during the months of February and March.

Click the following link to view images of the Humpback Whale.

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