By Lila Breyta
If you plan to go whale watching along the California Coast, keep your eye out for gray whales. Gray whales were called devil fish by early whalers because of their violent defensive behavior when harpooned or approached in close quarters. Gray whales are about 45 feet in length and weigh about 32,000 pounds. The females tend to be slightly larger than the males. They live 50 to 60 years. Gray whales surface every three to five minutes to breathe and can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes. They are dark gray with lighter patches. If you have the opportunity to get close to one, you will see that these patches are formed by barnacles that have attached themselves to the whales.
Grays are baleen whales, feeding on plankton, squid and fish and are prey only to orcas. They feed differently from other whales. They stir up shallow coastal areas, sucking in the bottom dwelling animals. Muddy plumes of water are often seen where gray whales are feeding.
Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal. During summer, they live in the Arctic. As fall approaches, there is less sunlight, less food, and the water turns cold. Every October gray whales leave the Bering and Chukchi Seas and travel South along the West Coast of Canada, the United States and Mexico. From the middle of December to the beginning of January, they can be seen between Monterey and San Diego. They travel about 75 miles a day and end their 5,000-6,800 mile trip in the warm-water lagoons of Mexico's Baja peninsula. By late December, they begin to arrive in these lagoons to give birth and mate.
Throughout February and March, the first to leave the lagoons are males and females without new calves. Pregnant females and nursing mothers with their newborns are the last to depart, leaving only when their calves are ready for the journey, which is usually from late March to mid-April. Newborn calves are 12 to 15 feet in length and weigh about 1,500 pounds. Calves are weaned at about eight months, after they have journeyed with their mothers back to the northern feeding grounds. Gray whales can be seen passing by California, sometimes from the road, in March and April on their northern journey.
When the breeding and calving lagoons were first discovered, the gray whale was hunted almost to extinction. They are now protected. Eastern Pacific gray whales were removed from the Endangered Species Act list in 1994, and the stock has been increasing in recent years.
Since gray whales migrate relatively close to shore, whale watching for them has become very popular. In recent years, "friendly whales" have been encountered in San Ignacio and Laguna Ojo de Libre in Baja California in Mexico. Here, gray whales will sometimes swim near small boats and allow themselves to be touched. If you travel to Baja to see the whales, you may be lucky enough to look one in the eye.
The Marine Mammal Center, http://www.marinemammalcenter.org
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov