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The gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is a migratory whale that maintains populations in the eastern and western coastal Pacific Ocean. A third population once existed in the North Atlantic Ocean, but became extinct due to overhunting. The gray whale spends much of its life traveling between breeding grounds in winter and feeding grounds in summer.
Genetically related to blue whales and humpback whales, the gray whale is distinct in its gray and white coloring and lack of a dorsal fin. Although dark gray in color, the whales are marked with white scar patterns left by parasites. Adult male animals are about 45-46 ft (13.7-14 m) in length and weigh around 30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg.) Females are slightly larger than males. A newborn calf is about 15 ft (4.5 m) long and usually weighs between 1,000 and 1,500 lbs (500-680 kg.)
The California gray whale of the Eastern Pacific maintains a predictable migratory pattern followed closely by whale-watching fans. In October of each year, the whales swim south from the Alaska area, averaging 80 miles per day (120 km.) By March, most of the population reaches Baja, California, where the gray whale calving lagoons are located. In these protected lagoons, whales mate and give birth until April or May, before beginning their northward trek back to the feeding grounds of Alaska. The yearly journey is 10,000-14,000 miles (16,000-22,530 km) long, believed to be the longest migratory pattern of any mammal.
Grey whale mothers travel with their newborn calves, after the babies have formed sufficient blubber layers to sustain them in colder waters. The trip north is dangerous for calves, as sharks and killer whales actively hunt them. Mother whales are noted to be particularly aggressive protectors, which originally lead to them being classified as dangerous and commonly called “devil fish.”
The history of human interaction with gray whales is not a pleasant one, with whaling being a key factor in the extinction of the Atlantic populations. When the calving lagoons of Baja were first discovered in 1857, the breeding and birthing animals were slaughtered by the hundred. In 1949, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial hunting of gray whales, and the Eastern Pacific population has recovered, despite continued hunting by some Native American and Russian groups. The Western Pacific population is believed by experts to remain in critical danger of extinction, with only 100-300 animals surviving.
The survival of gray whales is based mostly on the redefinition of whales as a protected species. The whale watching industry and animal rights groups continue to stress the importance of ensuring the survival of cetacean creatures as part of the ocean’s food chain. Because of the tremendous recovery of the California population of gray whales, the IWC has faced mounting pressure to allow commercial hunting of the animals once more. Although the gray whale is again flourishing in the coastal waters of North America, its future remains uncertain in the wake of hunting legislation and possible climate change.