250-244-1821
Photo By: Paul Cottis
Photo By: Paul Cottis
Photo By: Paul Cottis

Pacific Gray Whale

Best Places to view Gray Whales:

Ucluelet, Tofino, Sooke

There are over 20,000 Pacific Gray whales the make their way north along the west coast of Vancouver Island every year in late February to April. About 200 (resident) Gray Whales will stay and feed along the coast of Vancouver Island. The Pacific Rim Whale festival celibrates the Gray whale’s arrival on the coast every year in March. Gray whales have the longest migration route of any mammal and some of these giants swim as much as 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) round-trip from their summer stay in BC and Alaskan waters to the warmer waters off the Mexican coast. Gray whales travel 60 to 80 km each day and are often close enough to shore to be spotted from land. While most will feed off Alaska, some stay along the coast of BC and become “residents”. Vancouver Island hosts a couple hundred Gray Whale every year.

Description
Gray whales are identified by their scars left by parasites which drop off in the colder waters of Vancouver Island and Alaska. There are two blow holes on the top of their head which can create a V-shaped blow pattern on the surface. Gray whales feed on crustaceans along the bottom of the ocean by turning on its side and scooping up amphipods and small ocean creatures. They will often use their right side and may loose sight in their right eye as they get older.

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are baleen whales and are the only species in the family Eschrichtiidae. They can grow up to 49 ft (15 m) long, and weigh approximately 80,000 lb (35,000 kg). They were named after their mottled dark gray body with gray and white patches. Instead of a dorsal fin, they have a “dorsal hump” which is about two-thirds down the back on the body. They can be differentiated from Humpback whales from their 8-14 small bumps known as “knuckles”, between the dorsal hump and the tail flukes. (My sentence but need to fact check)

Feeding
Gray whales are the only whales that do the majority of their feeding from the bottom of the ocean. During winter months they rely on fat reserves from the summer and will increase up to 30% in weight and will cover many acres of muddy bottom during a summer’s feeding. They mostly feed in water that is 10 to 15 m (35 to 50 ft) deep on plankton, amphipods, tube worms, and crabs and will take in up to 1400 kg (3000 lbs) per day. Gray Whales normally roll on their right side and push their head into the top inches of sediment opening the mouth. They create a powerful suction to suck up the rich sediment full of sea by retracting the huge tongue and expanding and contracting the throat grooves. The tongue is used to force the muddy food through the baleen plates straining the food which is then swallowed. A plume of mud is left behind the whale as it feeds and turns over the bottom.

Social Interaction
During summer months Gray whales usually feed alone, especially when feeding on the bottom. They need a fairly large territory to sustain their large intake of food. During migration they often travel in small groups and can be quite affectionate with each other, often travelling in mixed sex groups.
Mating/Reproduction
Gray Whales become sexually mature around an average age of 8, though it can happen anytime between 6-12 years. Mating often occurs during southbound migration and can involve more than partner. Gestation happens at 12-13 months and births are common during the southward trip. The calf is a pinkish color at birth, however this changes quickly to its lifetime color of dark gray to black. The flukes of the newborn calf are usually curled up at birth and the mother has to support the calf towards the surface using its back and tail to help it upward. There the calf gets its first breath of air and within a few hours is strong enough to swim on its own.

The calf needs about 190 litres (50 gallons) of milk a day to help it gain the blubber it needs for the trip north again. The mother presses her nipple outward when the calf touches one of folds surrounding the nipple with its mouth. She ejects a stream of milk into the mouth of her calf and this process continues until the calf is weaned 7-8 months later, just in time for it to start learning to feed in the BC and Alaskan waters.