I know of no other wildlife excursions where seeing an entire animal is rare and viewing parts of it are exciting, photo-worthy events. Better yet, there is an entire industry devoted to it. It’s called whalewatching.
Like tens of thousands of others, I have stood on the deck of many a rocking boat hoping to see such clues to whales’ identities as tails, pectoral fins or heads. I constantly scan the horizon for blows. And I hope to see/photograph a whale breaching, the lone occasion when most of the mammal is visible — briefly — before it falls back into the sea.
Photographing breaches is difficult. When and where they happen cannot be predicted and they are only seconds long. Blink and you miss them. I have yet to get a breaching shot I really like.
Pacific Gray Whales
This article covers north Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Grays are baleen whales, of the family Mysticeti. The toothed whales, which include sperm whales and orcas, are known as Odontoceti.
First, a little history. Pacific gray whales are the only living members of their family. They were hunted to near extinction not once but twice. Yet in 1994 the eastern population (those off the West Coast) became the first marine mammals to be removed from the U.S. list of endangered species. There are now more than 26,000 of them.
The majority of eastern Pacific gray whales pass through California waters twice a year, once headed to Alaska (February to July), where they spend the summer, and then returning to the Baja peninsula (October to February), where they spend their winters birthing and breeding. Each 5,000 to 7,000 mile one-way trip takes two to three months. Grays stay relatively close to shore, giving lots of people (including scientists) opportunities to observe them. Wikipedia notes that a pod of about 200 grays don’t go all the way to Alaska, they remain along the coast from Canada to California and are known as the Pacific Coast feeding group.
Gray whales feed by ingesting mouthfuls of sediment from the sea floor. Their baleen strains the edible material from the inedible.
Adult Pacific grays can be 50 feet long and weigh as much as 40 tons. Females are larger than males. Grays are among the smallest baleen whales; only three species are smaller. The largest of all whales, toothed and baleen, is the blue whale, which Wikipedia says is: “the largest animal ever known to exist.” It can grow to be 100 feet long and weigh an estimated 150 tons.
At birth, gray whale calves weigh about 1,500 pounds and are 12 to 14 feet long. They are born between December and February in lagoons on the west coast of the Baja peninsula. These are ideal birthing places because they offer calm, shallow waters that are not frequented by whale predators such as orcas and sharks.
Pacific grays have earned the nickname, “the friendlies” because they have been interacting with humans since 1972. Before that, the two species spent a couple of centuries trying to kill each other, with humans winning the battle. Amazingly enough, a whale in San Ignacio Lagoon initiated the first friendly contact. The humans living/visiting the lagoon were dumbfounded but gradually learned the whales meant them no harm. The whales deliberately approach small boats full of people, often allowing themselves to be petted. Mothers encourage their calves to be friendly.
Decades ago two underwater photographers I know well received special permission to photograph grays. They quickly discovered the Baja lagoons where grays spend the winter have sandy bottoms and often, poor visibility. Did I mention there are strong tidal currents? Also, while grays can be friendly to humans in boats, they are not always so friendly when humans are in the water with them.
Whalewatching takes patience. You might be scanning the horizon for a long while before sighting a gray. Newbies quickly learn that tails are as unique as fingerprints. Other important gray whale parts include the head, which contains the blow holes, and the dorsal surface, which has a hump but no fin. A gray whale’s skin is covered with scars, scratches, white barnacles and orange whale lice (a commensal crustacean) that form distinctive patterns and leave distinctive scars.
Each whale species also has a distinctive blow, a mist that is part condensation and part water and is exhaled through the modified nostrils called blow holes. While toothed whales have a single blow hole baleen whales such as the grays have two. Gray whale blows are double plumed, can be 10 feet high, and may be heart shaped.
Additionally, each whale’s tail (flukes) is unique. Many have chunks missing where predators have bitten them and/or marine life growing on them that make them unmistakable. The flukes can be more than ten feet wide from tip to tip and gray whale flukes have a deep notch between them.
We’re so lucky to have these magnificent creatures cruising off our coast. This brief overview will get you started on your whale quest. The best part of it is that you can do it from shore, on the deck of a dive boat or on a whalewatch cruise. Enjoy!
Gray Whale Stats:
Genus/Species: Eschrichtius robustus
The author wishes to thank Gen and Shane Anderson for their help in the preparation of this article.