Gray Whale Migration through the waters of British Columbia.

April 17, 2012

Although we don’t see many Gray whales( known as ‘ devil-fish ‘ by the whalers of the1800s ), along the BC shoreline, during daylight hours, they are out there. They are traveling quietly, either alone, or in calf/cow pairs. Spring migration is underway and these whales are heading north from Baja, Mexico, their wintering breeding habitat, to the cold, nutrient rich waters of Alaska, and the Bering Sea. Theirs is possibly one of the longest migrations that any marine mammal takes, covering 22,400 km round trip. By 1947, they were almost hunted to extinction, but their numbers have slowly rebounded with a population that is growing annually, with over 18,000 off the Pacific Northwest waters. The Gray Whale, now known as the ‘ friendliest ‘ are particularly amiable on their wintering grounds, Baja, Mexico, allowing for people to touch them when they come close to boats. The young, active calves are very curious like many young animals and seek out human interaction. Their boisterous behaviours include spyhops and breaching, while mother looks on and protects her calf. The Gray Whale migration that occurs twice a year, early Spring and late Fall, takes them close along the Pacific coast, past California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, and finally Alaska. Because they have a near-shore migration route observers/scientists on land can monitor their progress. Several have been ‘ tagged ‘ by researchers making it easy for mapping and observation by Google-Earth. During their time in the breeding lagoons of Mexico, the mother whales( cows ) teach their calves how to ‘graze ‘ in the muddy-sandy bottoms of the lagoons. Gray Whales are Baleen Whales having no teeth. Instead they have plates of keratin substance, called baleen with attached long bristles and are ‘ filter-feeders ‘.They suck in and sift their prey items like a vacuum. They have a slender head, paired nostrils, small hump instead of a dorsal fin, 6-12 knuckles along the rear third of their back and large flukes. There is very little to eat in the warm waters of Mexico so the young are still nursed underwater, for 4-8 months following birth, with a 40% fat, rich content milk, but generally by the calves first summer, in the Arctic waters, they are beginning to feed themselves. They can increase their weight from an almost 1 ton birth weight, by 50 lbs a day, drinking 50 gallons of milk in 24 hrs, and can grow 1.5 ft a month. On route the adults generally feed on the tiny plankton in the water column, but worms and other animal forms including crustaceans, are all part of their diet. Typically during the months of March and April one can anticipate sightings within the Salish Sea, particularly in the Puget Sound area. These whales are easily recognised as they have scattered patches of white, light grey and orange on their skin from barnacles and other ‘ hitch-hikers ‘ that stay with the animal. They can live as long as 70 years, give birth every 2-3 years, and weigh in at 30 tonnes. Adults can reach lengths of 15 metres, while calves are 5m and are black when born. Unfortunately, a few of these whales each year wash ashore dead on occasion, in our area, due in part to natural causes, possible storms and from ingestion of human garbage that is left on the beaches and in the sea. During a necropsy ( post mortem exam ), some whales have been found to have in their stomachs, small towels, jogging pants, golf balls, surgical gloves and numerous plastic objects that kill the whale. These busy waters can be dangerous to all whales due to three large cities, with 9 million people bordering this area. Large vessel strikes, recreational boaters, Naval exercises using sonar in local waters, noise pollution, chemical and agricultural run offs that leach into the mud/waters, combined with commercial fishing, and discarded fishing gear, all contribute to threats to these migrating marine mammals. They have numerous obstacles to navigate on their journey. We all need to be mindful of what we leave on the beach and pour down our sinks and toilets. Best practice is to never leave anything while on recreation and to use eco-friendly substances, so that these wonderful creatures can continue to follow their migration route as they have done for eons, with as little interference from humans as possible.
Marie “Orca-Magic”, Clint “Orcawizard”
Link to a special kind of Gray Whale that is tagged and traveling great distances
More about Gray whale migration.

Most of the images on the blog are shot with a 400 mm telephoto lens. Because of our restrictions around wildlife (100+ meters), we use powerful lenses to better share orca activity that passengers see on their trips. Keep in mind this also heavily compresses space between objects. We also crop images for best blog viewing.