The Gray Whale: Past, Present, and Future

The Gray Whale: Past, Present, and Future

A short article on how the gray whale has teetered on the brink of extinction and subsequently recovered in some areas.


4 - 12


Biology, Ecology, Oceanography, Geography, Conservation

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The official sea animal of the U.S. state of California is the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus).

There were once three major groups of gray whales. One was in the Atlantic Ocean. This group died off a long time ago. Another one is in the western Pacific Ocean, and a third lives in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This last group lives near the U.S. states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

At certain times of the year, these gray whales migrate up and down California's coast. They move from the warm, shallow waters of Mexico to Alaska. In Alaska, the waters are rich in healthy nutrients. During their 19,300-kilometer (12,000-mile journey), gray whales are often spotted from shore. People often go out on whale-watching tours to watch the creatures pass by. The animals can be recognized easily. They have a dark gray color, a lumpy back, a heart-shaped spout and no fin on their backs. Gray whales grow up to 15 meters (49 feet long), which is more than a school bus.

Gray Whales Prefer the Shallow Coasts

Gray whales feed on various creatures. They are bottom feeders, which means they look for smaller animals on the ocean floor. One of their favorite meals is amphipods. These small, shrimp-like animals live in mud. To feed on these creatures, whales suck in mud and water. They grab food bits using their baleen plates. Baleen is like thick hairs that look like bristles on a broom. The baleen plate works like a filter. Whales use their tongue to scrape food from the baleen.

As bottom feeders, gray whales prefer shallow waters. That is why they migrate near the coast. Mother whales nurse and feed their babies in the warm, shallow waters near Baja California. This is a part of Mexico.

Overhunted 100 Years Ago

Alisa Schulman-Janiger keeps count of gray whales for the American Cetacean Society. Gray whales in Baja California waters were hunted during the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said. This was devastating.

The gray whales were targeted in places where they raise their young, Schulman-Janiger said. She added that hunters, known as whalers, killed the mother whales and their babies.

Many eastern Pacific gray whales were hunted in the mid-1800s, and again in the early 1900s. They almost went extinct, meaning gone forever. Their blubber was used to make oil for lamps. The animals were easy to catch because they stayed close to the coast. They were especially hunted in Southern California and Mexico.

In the 1920s, whalers brought "floating factories" out to sea. This made it easier for them to hunt and catch whales. They brought the whales to the factories to pick them apart.

Legal Protections Saved the Whales

Today, Pacific gray whales are protected by international organizations and government groups. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created in 1946. It helps make rules for whaling for all the world's oceans. The IWC started protecting gray whales in 1947.

In the United States, gray whales are also protected by law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act says that marine animals cannot be hunted without a special permit. The Endangered Species Act protects all animals that are in danger of becoming extinct. This act makes it illegal to harm those animals or their habitats.

Mexico now protects many of Baja California's major mating sites and nursing lagoons. Mating sites are where the whales meet to have babies. Nursing lagoons are where mothers raise their baby whales.

Some whaling is still done by native peoples in Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. Some countries also do not accept IWC rulings. People there still carry out illegal whaling.

California's Gray Whale Is Safe Today

Gray whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean were almost gone in the 1950s. Today, they have bounced back. There are about 19,000 gray whales. This is considered to be a healthy number. In 1994, the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List.

Unfortunately, gray whales in the western Pacific Ocean are in danger of being hunted by whalers. These whales are near Japan and Russia. Whaling is more common there. Whales are less protected. In this area, there are just under 100 gray whales.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Stuart Thornton
Meghan E. Marrero
Kristen Dell, National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Lindsey Mohan, Ph.D.
National Geographic Society
Zachary Michel
Last Updated

January 11, 2024

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