whales belong to the Mammalian Order Cetacea, in the suborder
Mysticeti. All baleen whales belong to the suborder Mysticeti,
which is Latin for "mustached whales". The gray whale is the only
member of the family Eschrichtidae. This family is named in honor of
Daniel Fredrik Eshricht (1798-1863), a Dutch zoologist responsible
for writing several important papers on cetaceans. The Gray Whale's
scientific name is Eschrichtus robustus. The genus name
honors Daniel Fredrik Eschricht, and the specific name is Latin for
"stout or robust".
whales are recognizable by their mottled gray skin that tends to
have many barnacles growing on it. In fact, there are three species
of barnacles that are found exclusively on gray whales! Males of
this species can grow to 60 feet in length. At one museum display,
it took eight of us lined head to toe to match a life-sized outline!
These whales are found
along the Pacific coast of North America, ranging from their
breeding grounds near Baja California in Mexico to their principle
feeding areas in the vicinity of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The
gray whale is a type of baleen whale and it feeds specifically on
small worms and amphipods found in the loose mud on the floor of the
ocean in coastal waters.
Gray whales have the
longest migration of any mammal, traveling approximately 11,000
miles round-trip each year. They breed and give birth in the warm
waters of Baja California, then travel along the western coast of
North America to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. They
travel at a constant speed of five miles per hour, unless
frightened, which causes swimming speed to increase to 15 miles per
hour. Gray whales have two predators. Humans once hunted this
whale, and orcas continue to hunt this whale. Orcas will attack
gray whale calves, eating the tongue of the gray whale.
To feed, they dive to
the bottom in a shallow area, roll to one side, and scoop up a huge
quantity of mud. Interestingly, gray whales tend to roll to their
right side when scooping up mud. They then spit most of their
mouthful back out by forcing the water and fine dirt particles
through their baleen plates. While this goes on, the baleen acts as
a filter. Edible creatures are caught in the comb-like structure.
The whale then licks off the meal it has caught with its tongue.
Gray whales are the only "bottom-feeding" baleen whales.
Because of the gray whale's well known
migratory route and slow moving speed, whalers once hunted them
extensively and brought this species to near extinction.
Fortunately in 1946, the International Whaling Commission afforded a
protection that was soon strengthened by the United States Marine
Mammal Protection Act of 1971and the United States Endangered
Species Act of 1972. Since then, their numbers have been showing a
steady recovery. In fact, gray whales have recently been removed
from the Endangered Species List. They are considered an
environmental success, which is a source of encouragement and
inspiration for environmentalists everywhere.