Everything You Need to Know About Gray Whales

Let’s dive to the bottom to meet the gray whale.

Gray whales might not be as well known as their humpback or sperm whale cousins, but I think you’re going to fall in love with them all the same. For instance, did you know gray whales blow hearts!? They have two blow holes, and when they exhale you can see a heart spout out of the water. 

Gray whales also have the reputation of being the friendliest whales in the world. They are curious about boats and will often approach them and check out the humans aboard. Near Mexico, a gray whale actually played with a boat of tourists by lifting the vessel onto its back and briefly swimming away with it. Gray whales want to learn about us, so let’s take some time to learn about them in return. 

Why are they called gray whales?

Gray whales get their name from their color which is, you guessed it, gray with white splotches all over their bodies. They’ve earned a few nicknames, like “devil fish,” due to their aggressive behavior when trying to escape whalers in the past. They’ve also been called “mud diggers” or “mussel diggers” due to the way they eat. Gray whales will dive down to the ocean floor, turn to their sides, and scoop up sediment with their mouths. As they swim up, they leave long trails of mud in their wake while filtering out their food, mainly small invertebrates. 

Their Latin name is Eschrichtius robustus. The genus Eschrichtius is named for Daniel Frederik Eschricht, a nineteenth century scientist who was the authority on whales at the time. Some of his work even got a shout out in Jules Verne’s underwater epic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Their species name robustus comes from the Latin meaning strong. It is a fitting description for these powerful swimmers. 

How big is a gray whale?

Fully grown gray whales range from 43-49 feet, about the size of a semi-trailer. They are among the top ten largest whale species and about half the size of a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet. But gray whales are by no means small; they weigh approximately 60,000-80,000 pounds on average, more than the combined weight of six elephants. 

How do gray whales get their spots? 

While they might not be a fashion statement, the white spots barnacles leave behind on these animals help scientists identify individual gray whales. These white blotches are often scars from barnacles and parasites. The most common hitchhiker on gray whales is Cryptolepas rhachianecti, a species of barnacle that attaches only to whales. When feeding at the bottom of the ocean, a gray whale will try to scrape off these freeloaders, but it doesn’t always work. A single gray whale can have up to a thousand pounds of barnacles on it at any given time.

These barnacles don’t reside alone; they also provide homes to whale lice. As gross as whale lice sound, they actually do perform a beneficial service to the whale. They eat skin for lunch, literally, and often will feed around wounds and scars which helps reduce the risk of infection. 

Where do you find gray whales?  

Gray whales prefer shallow coastal waters where they can find their favorite foods in the muddy bottom. They can be found in the North Pacific spanning from the west coast of North America to the eastern coast of Asia. There were gray whales in the North Atlantic, but they were likely driven to extinction on the American coast by whalers in the eighteenth century. They disappeared from the European coast during the Middle Ages. 

Gray whales hold the record for the longest migrations in the world, travelling up to 14,000 miles round trip. That is the equivalent to going coast-to-coast in the United States more than four times! When migrating, a gray whale swims about 75 miles a day which is a lot considering their average pace is just five miles per hour. One gray whale travelled even further from its home: it was found in Namibia more than 16,700 miles away from its home in the North Pacific, making it the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. 

How many years do grey whales live?

The exact age of gray whales is difficult to detect, but scientists found one female whale who lived until she was somewhere between 75 and 80 years old. That means there could be gray whales alive today that would be old enough to remember World War II or when perms were cool. Just imagine how gray whales have seen their ocean home change during that time. 

How can I help gray whales?

There are reports every year about gray whales being entangled in fishing gear. They are among the many animals that fall victim to this plight, including a 47-foot-long adult male sperm whale that was found with a knotted mass of plastic debris after it beached itself in the Florida Keys earlier this year. Grey whales need protection from plastic pollution and other threats, including ocean noise and habitat destruction from oil and gas development. Luckily, the friendliest whales have a friend in you. You can take action with Ocean Conservancy to demand change for our ocean and the marine life that depends on it.

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