California Gray Whales

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are often thought of as “our” whales, but we do share them with Canada and Baja California.  The native range is limited to the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean. The gray whale is so unique that scientists classify it as the only member of the benthic whale family.  Unlike other baleen whales that feed on schools of small fish and krill, the gray whale lies on its side in the ocean mud, stirs the mud with its flipper, and then takes in big mouthfuls of mud and small animals which are the benthos.  The baleen is used to separate the muddy water, which is sent back into the ocean, and the small bits of food that are retained are then swallowed – like separating your spaghetti from the cooking water!

The time to most reliably see whales is during the gray whale migrations.  Migrating whales often travel very close to shore, so viewing is excellent from Point Lobos – if you are there at the right time!  During summer months, you won’t see gray whales as they are feeding in the mud of Alaskan waters.  Many of the females are pregnant.  When winter storms begin in October, the whales begin leaving their summer home and migrate south along the eastern Pacific coast.  By late December through early February the migrating whales pass central California.  These are whales with a mission:  to reach the warm southern California waters before birthing and you won’t see them frolicking about.  Since these whales begin their migration about the same time, they are often seen in groups, or pods.

If you miss the southern migration in winter, you have another chance to catch a gray whale sighting in late spring.  Mating and birth take place in the warm waters of Baja California and then the gray whales are ready to begin the long trek home – another 6000 mile swim.  Males and females without calves begin the northern migration first and pass central California from late March through May.  The whales are eager to return to the rich, muddy feeding grounds of the north.  Females with calves begin their migration as soon as the calf is strong enough to travel, like the one in the photo at left, so they are among the later whales passing Point Lobos.  The female attempts to keep her calf as close to the shore as possible to protect it from attack by pods of orca whales.  A female gray whale can lose one-third of her body weight as the long journey, birth and nursing consume stored fat, or blubber. 

The gray whale can be recognized by its dark slate-gray skin which is mottled with white patches that result from barnacles attached to the skin, whale lice, and scars.  A mature gray whale can weigh 30 – 40 tons and is about 40 – 50’ long; females are slightly larger than males.  The grey whale gestation time is 13 months and females give birth every 2-3 years.  The gray whale was hunted for its blubber (fat) which was used as lamp fuel before the discovery of kerosene and electricity.  They were once called devil fish because of their fighting behavior when hunted.  There are about 26,000 gray whales in the eastern Pacific and another small pod in the far north western Pacific, near Japan.  A gray whale may live 55 – 70 years.