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If you’ve ever seen a whale hurl its massive body into the air and breach water, then it should be no surprise that humans have declared a day to honor the majestic sea mammals. Many seafarers traveling to the islands off of the Southern California coast have encountered these regal creatures and—with a collective gasp and a rush to one side of the boat— witnessed a display of strength and grace that leaves awe in its wake.

This year, February 18th marked the annual celebration of World Whale Day which was founded in 1980 to honor the humpback whales swimming off of the coast of Maui, Hawaii. Traditional celebrations include a humpback parade, costumed characters and music performed by international and Hawaiian artists. Since it’s inception, World Whale Day has grown to encompass all sorts of Cetaceans —a diverse group of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and beluga that is distributed widely through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Humpback whale breaching the water. Photo Source Wiki Commons, public domain.

The California Gray Whale’s northern migration from the warm waters of Mexico to the icy Arctic Sea has just begun and already there has been a smattering of whale sightings off of the California coast. Earlier this week, three gray whales were seen splashing around the Los Angeles harbor.

Each year, pods of gray whales travel a distance of 10,000-12,000 miles between their winter calving lagoons in Mexico and their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Their migration is the longest of any mammal on the planet! With a lifespan somewhere between 40-65 years, a gray whale travels 400,000- 650,000 miles in its lifetime.  From birth to death, these extraordinary aquatic mammals swim as far as a trip from the earth to the moon and back (477,800 miles)! For visitors and residents of California, Oregon, and Washington now is the perfect time to catch a glimpse of the majestic sea creatures as they make their journey north.

Mothers of Many

Gray whales mate in the lagoons off of the coast of Mexico or in the warm waters somewhere along the way. In the early spring, pregnant females travel to Alaska’s arctic waters and stock up food to feed themselves and their gestating babies. During the fall and winter seasons, mothers began their journey south to give birth to their calves who will weigh somewhere between 1,100-1,500 pounds and nurse from their mothers for 6 to 8 months. A fully mature gray whale can birth over 20 calves in her lifetime yet according to wildlife biologists, only 50-percent of her calves will survive to adulthood.

What Happens When a Whale Falls Asleep?

Humans rely on the autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath involuntarily—meaning most times we never have to think about breathing. Unlike humans, whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. At night the gray whale and other cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping and have been said to sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close.  It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourage this continual consciousness!

Gray whale breeching. Notice the white barnacles on its back. Photo source: Wiki Commons, public domain.

Distinguishing Features

Gray whales have a narrow, tapered head, and a streamlined body that is slightly larger than the humpback whale (49 feet compared to 46 feet). Their skin is a patchy gray that is often covered in white barnacles (think of them as the hitchhikers of the sea) and orange whale lice. Whale lice is a parasite that feeds on skin and damaged tissue. The lice gather around open wounds or scars and can spread from mother to calf. Both lice and barnacles make an excellent meal for the schools of small fish who follow whales closely.  As the fish enjoy the all-you-can-eat lice buffet, the whale benefits from the simultaneous  grooming that lessons the load of pesky parasites.

Each whale’s tail has two flukes which connect in the center. Notice the barnacles stuck to this gray whale’s tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Unlike toothed whales (think orcas and dolphins), gray whales have a thick comb like layer of baleen hairs attached to their gums to help them catch their food. Both humpbacks and gray whales will surface for a quick spout and a breath before disappearing back into the depths of the ocean to search for food. Diving to the muddy ocean’s floor, gray whales scoop up the floor’s sediment, filter out the mud and water and trap their meal.

Baleen whales carry and expel enormous amounts of water by using a system of ventral pleats that line their abdomen.  Similar to a pelican’s pouch, a whale’s ventral pleats will expand and contract like giant accordions. In just one movement, the pleats can push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish, plankton, and krill become trapped inside baleen barriers and the whales are able to swallow them whole.

Baleen from a gray whale. Photo source: Public domain

The Pacific Gray Whale has Bounced Back From the Brink of Extinction— Twice!!!

In the 1700 and 1800’s, whalers in search of oil, meat, and baleen hunted gray whales in colossal numbers.  Over a period of 150 years, harpooners nearly wiped out an entire population  and it has been estimated that by the early 20th century less than 2,000 pacific gray whales had survived. In 1946 an international treaty was signed and laws were passed to protect cetaceans from commercial whaling.  Since then the Endangered Species Act of 1974 and watchful protection has increased the gray whale population to significantly.

Today, nearly 24,000 gray whales continue their annual migration along the coast of North America, giving humans a glimpse of these majestic creatures that live in the deep.

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