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Published on April 13th, 2013 | by Yellow Magpie

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Gray Whale: The Gigantic Voyagers Of The Oceans

Gray Whale Breaching The Water’s Surface

The Gray whale is most closely related to the fin and humpback whales. One of the larger species of baleen whales, the Gray Whale is one of nature’s most spectacular sights.

The Gray Whale’s Unusual Characteristics

The Gray whale is named after its colour which is mottled grey or slate-grey. Like the Beluga, they do not have a dorsal fin. Gray whales have two blowholes which is a feature of baleen whales. Toothed whales, on the other hand, such as the Narwhal only possess a single blowhole.

Gray Whale Blowhole Photo By Phil Konstantin

One of the most unique features of the Gray whale is the striking colour of its baleen which is a blond or off-white colour (baleen is a teeth-substitute that consists of many long hair-like structures). Compared to other baleen whales, the Gray is also unusually short in length.

A Tale Of Two Numbers

The Gray whale was originally found in two locations – the North Atlantic and the North Pacific. However, the Atlantic Gray whales become extinct sometime in the 18th century.

Today the Gray whale is divided into two populations of very differing sizes. One can be found in the Western Pacific and the other in the Eastern Pacific. The western population is incredibly small at an estimated 120 to 130 individuals. This extremely endangered group are present off the Seas of Okhotsk and Japan.

The eastern population is in a much healthier position with numbers estimated at twenty to twenty-two thousand.

Gray Whale Trapped In The Bering Sea Icepack

Eye-Opening Feeding Habits

As a baleen whale, Grays are filter feeders. They feed on crustaceans found in shallow water on the ocean floor. Grays do this by opening their mouths and scooping up the sediment. The baleen hairs trap the food while the water is pumped out using their massive tongues.

A peculiar habit of the Gray whales feeding pattern is the fact that they scoop up the sediment on their sides. Gray whales choose a side to feed from and stick with their choice for life – most pick the right side. This type of feeding is highly hazardous and many older Gray whales go blind due to damage.

Blindness seems the most likely reason as to why they pick a side as they don’t risk losing both eyes and becoming totally blind.

A Long Long Migration

Gray whales are thought to be the longest mammalian migrators. Astonishingly, their migration can encompass travel of up to 22,000 kilometres (13,000 miles).

Round-trip journeys of such magnitude can take the Gray Whale up to half-a-year to complete. What is even more amazing is the speed at which they travel. Averaging roughly 120 kilometres (75 miles) a day they are on the move both day and night ploughing through the water at a brisk eight kilometres (five miles) per hour.

The migration to warmer southern waters begins in late autumn with the return trek to the colder Arctic waters occurring in late spring.

 Gray Whale Aerial Photo

The Effects Of Whaling

Killing Gray whales has long since been part of the tribal traditions in Canada and the United States. In the mid-16th century the Japanese started catching Gray whales.

During the 19th century the problem of whaling became systemic for the Gray whale with over 8,000 slaughtered in the 28 years leading up to 1874. It has been suggested that the extinction of the North Atlantic Gray whales was a result of human hunting.

Nowadays the Gray whale is a protected species and only hunted for aboriginal/subsistence purposes mainly in Russia.

Threats To Gray Whales

Today’s threats to Gray Whales come from two main sources – humans and Orcas. Aboriginal whaling does occur but in very small numbers.

Underwater noise pollution, particularly from fossil fuel exploration, and human activity near breeding grounds are concerns. Toxic spill pollution and boat collisions together with net entanglement are also posing serious problems.

Gray Whale Size Comparison

Vital Statistics

  • Gray Whales can reach lengths in excess of 16 metres (50 feet).
  • They can weigh as much as 38 tonnes.
  • Gray Whales are found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Although one has been spotted in the Mediterranean.
  • They can live to be up to 70 years old.

Recommended Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Whales: Kings Of The Cetaceans, Fin Whale: The Giant Speedster Of The Oceans and Dolphin: Our Love Affair With Our Favourite Cetacean for further insight into Whales and their cetacean cousins.

Among Giants: A Life With Whales is the fascinating story of underwater photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin. Full of stunning pictures and insightful commentary about the whales this book is stunning.

You can obtain Among Giants: A Life with Whales here from Amazon.

Amazon.co.uk
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Among Giants: A Life with Whales from here.

Amazon.ca
For Canada: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

Amazon.de
For Germany: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

Amazon.fr
For France: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.


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