Gray whales - Every year, gray whales migrate back and forth between Mexico and Alaska. At some places you can even see them from the mainland.


The everlasting wanderers. Travelling between Mexico and Alaska, you can often see them even from the beach.


Photo: Shutterstock/Jan-Dirk_Hansen


The everlasting wanderers. Travelling between Mexico and Alaska, you can often see them even from the beach.


Photo: Shutterstock/Jan-Dirk_Hansen


The annual migration of the gray whales is one of the longest of all mammals. That’s a good thing for whale watchers: It is quite predictable, where to meet them at a certain time.

Gray whales don’t strike you with their beauty. Their whole body is often laced with more than 100 kilos of scars, clams, whale lice and barnacles, which kind of makes them look as if they fell into the water from the ugly tree. Nonetheless, together with humpbacks, they are the most popular and most watched whales. The reasons are simple: They can be very playful and curious, and often like to interact with boats, sometimes getting really close. Their curiosity is so big that sometimes you might ask yourself: Who is actually watching whom here?

In the Gulf of California, where they spend their winters for mating season, they get so relaxed that you can sometimes pet them from the boat. Altogether, gray whales seem to be more tactile than other whales in general, as they also keep touching each other. Among whalers, however, gray whales were rather unpopular, as they defended their calves so aggressively that they just started hunting the whalers instead. This earned them the infamous nickname: “Devils’ Fish”. Nonetheless, gray whales were hunted to the brink of extinction for centuries.

From a whale watching point of view it is a big advantage that gray whales undertake long seasonal migrations, which are very well predictable in time and location. Their up to 15.000 kilometer long routes are among the longest of all mammals on earth. It leads them from the subtropical mating regions to the polar areas for feeding. In the course of their lives, gray whales easily swim a distance as far as from the earth to the moon.

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Gray whales belong to those whales, that keep very close to the coast, so that you can watch them comfortably from the beach in some places.

Their feeding technique looks rather uninspired: They just dig around into the mud. As everything on their long travels revolves about energy-efficiency, gray whales at one point just stopped putting so much effort into their search for food – and specialized on living off plankton.

On the ground of the ocean they just turn to their side and start hoovering in the mud like a big vacuum cleaner. It then gets filtered over the tongue and through the baleen. The tongue alone weighs about 1.5 tons, by the way. During this procedure, the gray whales stir up thick traces of mud, which can even be seen from the surface.

Gray whales swim approximately a distance as long as from the earth as far as to the moon in the course of their life. And back again.

Most gray whales turn onto their right side for feeding. That’s why it is usually more scarred and scratched than the other side and the baleen are shorter. There are, however, left-turners as well.

Feeding is seasonal for gray whales. From May to October they devour up to 170 tons of food, living off their reserves for the rest of the time, including their travels to the mating regions and back. This means that they do several months of fasting in the southern lagoons and when they come back from their winter quarters they have lost about 30% of their original weight.

Saving energy is also a big issue during mating. Both males and females have changing partners so that any kind of struggle takes place “in utero” among the sperm of the various male mates. The energy wasted on useless rivalry-brawls is saved that way.


Photo: iStock/Jan-Dirk_Hansen

Gray whales are 12 to 14 meters long. The maximum is 15 meters. Females are a bit bigger than males. They reach a weight of up to 25 tons.


Grey to dark grey, laced with scratches, clams, whale lice, scars and barnacles. Young animals are darker and have less spots.


Very bulky body. The head is rather small and lean in comparison and has a visible bulge on top.


Medium high (2 to 3 meters), bushy, v-shaped and loud.


Gray whales have no dorsal fin, just a little bulge with a few dents that run down to the fluke.


Convex shape and frilled rear edge. Pointy with a strong indentation. Can have a width of up to 3 meters.


Often playful and curious. Gets close to boats and can, in some areas, even be petted.


Gray whales usually stay under water for 3 to 5 minutes and come to the surface for several breaths again.


Gray whales can only be found in the Northern Pacific Ocean. About 15.000 to 25.000 animals live there.


Photo: iStock/Jan-Dirk_Hansen


With their spots and pox and scars and their bent head, gray whales are hard to confuse with other whales.

Gray whales have no big social behavior between each other and often travel alone. The only close connection exists between a mother and its calf as long as the calf is nursed and during their migration to the feeding regions in the north. There, you can sometimes see groups of up to 20 animals. This, however, is rather due to attractive feeding grounds than a big desire for socializing.

Along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, gray whales tend to be pretty busy feeding and migrating. They seem to be more relaxed in the lagoons of the Baja California:Here they do more jumping, are more curious and tame towards boats – and can sometimes even be petted by their human visitors.

Although gray whales look quite unique with their many spots and barnacles, individual animals can be identified only with difficulty.

When surfacing and exhaling, the strong bend of the head is very well visible. It falls down steeply in the front, as if the whale was already on its way to dive into the water again. After the final breath before going under water again, the many little humps on the back become visible. The whole body gets bent then, forming a big triangle above the waterline. Then the hump disappears, the back becomes rounder again and tail and – at times – fluke rise up. The fluke only gets raised if the whale wants to dive deep at a steep angle.

Even though a gray whale could easily be identified by the scars, pox and spots across its body, you will hardly ever get any detailed information about a specific animal on board of a whale watching trip. Identification is more complicated than comparing flukes of humpback whales for example, and quite often there are just too many animals in one place to focus on a certain one of them.

When jumping, gray whales shoot out of the water almost vertically, turn and then drop into the water on their side or back. Often, gray whales do a series of jumps. They also do spyhopping: The head rises 2 to 3 meters above the surface and is then turned in a circle. In shallow lagoons, gray whales lean upon their tails while doing that, effectively standing upright in the water.


Photo: Shutterstock/Jan-Dirk_Hansen

Where and when GRAY WHALES

Gray whales migrate back and forth from California to Alaska every year. Depending on the season, they can be spotted anywhere along the North American east coast.

Until into the 20th century, gray whales were hunted down mercilessly. The population in the Atlantic Ocean did not survive. There were only a few hundred animals left along the North American West Coast, which, however, have recovered surprisingly well. Today, there are about 15.000 to 25.000 animals in the Pacific Ocean.

Over the year, gray whales keep migrating along the coast of Middle and North America. During winter, they give birth to their calves in the subtropical waters of the Baja California.During summer, they travel north via California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to Alaska to get to their feeding grounds in polar regions like the Bering-, Chuckchi-, and Western Beaufort Sea.

Many gray whales, however, don’t travel that far north at all and rather stay at the coastlines of Vancouver Island all summer long. The best time for a visit at the Baja California is from January to the middle of February, when the calves are born. They stay there until March; then migration to the north starts, where they arrive in May. In October they start going back south.

Depending on the season you can observe gray whales everywhere along the west coast of North America. Often even directly from the beach.

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