Creature Feature: Gray Whale

Image courtesy NOAA

Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are powerful and majestic beings, traveling up to 12500 miles round trip from Alaska to Mexico. To travel such a distance might sound like a long and lonely journey, but gray whales are never alone when they migrate.  Though they sometimes travel in pods, they always carry what we like to call marine hitchhikers!  Gray whales are known to have huge barnacles and whale lice on their bodies. These travelers give the normally grey colored whales the look of having white patches along their bodies.  Gray whales can be difficult to spot if you don’t know what to look for. When a gray whale swims along the coast you may notice the lack of a dorsal fin, like an orca whale or a dolphin.  Instead, you would see that it has ridges on its back, resembling knuckles. These species are able to grow to an average length about 50 ft long, though the females are usually larger.

You may be surprised to know that whales can be right or left “handed,” just like people!  You are able to tell a right “handed” gray vs. a left “handed” gray by the way they feed. These baleen whales will venture into shallow waters and using only one side of their jaw, scrape along the substrate collecting small invertebrates. Using their baleen, the whales will sift the water and sediment out and use their tongue to gorge on tasty invertebrates.

In early 20th century, the number of gray whales was at the point of extinction. In 1947, full protection was granted to the gray whale species. With worldwide laws protecting the whales and their habitat, these amazing creatures were able to bounce back. In 1994, these large mammals were taken off the endangered species list.  Gray whales are an important member of the ocean ecosystem and by learning about them and where they live, we can help to make sure they are here to stay.



Creature Features edited by KC O’Shea


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