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 U.S. state of California's official sea animal — the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus)— is adored by many.

There were once three stocks of gray whales: one in the Atlantic Ocean, long extinct; one in the western Pacific Ocean; and a third in the eastern Pacific.

The species makes famous seasonal migrations up and down the state's coast and beyond. They move from the warm, shallow waters of Mexico to the nutrient-rich waters of the U.S. state of Alaska. During their 19,300-kilometer (12,000-mile) journey, gray whales are often spotted from shore, and whale-watching companies take groups of people out on the water to spot them. The creatures are easily identified by their dark gray color, lumpy back, heart-shaped spout and absent dorsal fin. They grow up to 15 meters (49 feet) long.

Gray whales are known to feed on a variety of species. They specialize in bottom feeding, focusing on amphipods — small, shrimp-like organisms that live in tube structures in mud. The whales also gobble up other mud-dwelling invertebrates, or animals without backbones, including tube worms and mollusks.

To feed on these creatures, whales suck in water and mud. They separate food bits using the broom-like baleen plates in their mouths. They then push the excess water and mud back into the ocean by using their tongue to scrape food from the baleen.

Targeted In Lagoons

As bottom feeders, gray whales prefer shallow waters and therefore migrate near the coast. Mothers birth one calf, or baby whale, at a time, nursing them in the warm, shallow waters near Baja California, Mexico.

Unfortunately, some of these characteristics of gray whales nearly led to their end.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger is the gray whale census director for the Los Angeles, California, branch of the American Cetacean Society. She said the hunting of gray whales that happened in Baja California lagoons during the late 1800s and early 1900s was devastating. The hunt for whales is called whaling.

"The single biggest thing is that gray whales were targeted in their nursing lagoons," she said. "So the whalers would go into the lagoons and kill the pregnant mothers, the nursing mothers, and the calves would die also."

Eastern Pacific gray whales were hunted to near extinction in the mid-1800s and again in the early 1900s. Their blubber produced oil used for lamps. The animals were easily accessible to whalers because they remained close to the coast, and they became overhunted in Southern California and Mexico. As populations rebounded in the 1920s, whalers used "floating factories" to process and pick apart the whales out at sea after being caught.

Modern Protections Saved the Gray Whale

Today, Pacific gray whales are protected by international organizations and several government agencies. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946, to regulate whaling throughout the world's oceans. Gray whales received protections from the IWC in 1947.

In the United States, the animals are further protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to kill, feed, or capture marine mammals without the necessary permit. The Endangered Species Act protects all animals that are listed as endangered, and makes it illegal to harm either the animals or their habitat. Meanwhile, Mexico transformed some of Baja California's major breeding and nursing lagoons into protected zones.

Limited whaling is still practiced by native peoples in Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. There have also been some reports of illegal whaling by nations that do not accept IWC treaties.

After being near extinction in the 1950s, the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific has rebounded to an estimated 19,000 animals, considered to be a healthy stock. In 1994, the gray whale was "de-listed," or removed from the Endangered Species List.

Unfortunately, gray whales in the western Pacific are vulnerable to whalers from Japan and Russia. They have not fared as well as those in the east — their population remains at just under 100 animals.

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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