Gray Whale :
Fact: Gray Whales eat mostly Krill (small shrimp) and small crustaceans and worms
This whale is also known as the California Gray Whale, Devilfish, Mussel-Digger, Scrag Whale, but to scientists it is known by the name Eschrichtius robustus. The gray whales’ scientific name stems from an honour bestowed upon a nineteenth-century Danish zoology professor Daniel Eschrichtius who taught at the University of Copenhagen and the Latin word for strong (robustus).
Gray whales belong to a group of whales known as the Mysticeti or baleen whales. This means that they do not have any teeth, but rather have a filtering apparatus (the baleen), which hangs down from the top jaw in the mouth. Like other baleen whales, the females are typically bigger than the males. Gray whales grow to a maximum length of about 14m (45 ft) and weigh between 15 to 35 tons as adults. Newborns are estimated to weigh about half a ton and be between 4.5 – 5 m (14-16 ft) at birth!
Gray Whales were once known as the “Devilfish” as they had a tendency to attack whaling boats that were trying to harpoon them. Today the gray whale is known as the “friendly whale” because they have learned that that the boats are no longer trying to kill them, but rather trying to watch them. In the wintering grounds of Baja, Mexico the gray whales have developed a new behaviour of coming right up to the boats to have a look at the people. Sometimes the whale watchers can even touch the whales. Gray whales have become one of the friendliest whale species on the planet.
Gray whales are often a familiar species to many people because of their coastal migration. Each spring, the gray whale population swims along the west coast of North America from Baja California, Mexico to the Bering, Chukchi and western Beaufort Seas. They return to Mexico each fall where they spend their winters. April through November, the gray whales are found in their Arctic feeding grounds, and as the days shorten and the ice builds, they begin their southward journey to Mexico, where they can be found from December to April. The round trip journey is approximately 12,000 km (8,000miles) and they swim an average of about 125 km (82 miles) per day.
When you look at a gray whale, it is hard not to notice to scars, scratches and barnacles on their skin. Gray whales are covered in small barnacles and small crustaceans known as whale lice. These parasites are found on no other animal on earth – just the gray whales! Gray whales have been known to rub on the rocky ocean bottom or swim into brackish waters to try to remove the parasites.
The light coloured scars result mostly from their feeding habits. Gray whales forage on the ocean floor by sucking in the mud and the creatures that live in the mud. Mucking around in the sea bottom sediments often results in cuts and abrasions that end up leaving scars. Interestingly, gray whales tend to have more scars on the right side of their face than the left. It seems most gray whales are “right-handed”. These whales are not confined to consuming bottom creatures such as worms and clams, they will also eat the small shrimps, plankton and herring roe that are found swimming or floating in the water column.
Some gray whales choose to spend their summers near Vancouver Island, rather than swimming all the way to the Arctic. These have become known as “residents”. Please take note, that this is different from the term “resident” applied to some of our killer whales. Resident gray whales spend a lot of time in the inland waters of southern British Columbia and northwestern Washington. In some years, they are regularly sighted from Prince of Whales whale watching boats. In other years, we see them less. It depends on where the food is.
Good Gray Whale References: Busch, Robert H. 1998. Gray Whales Wandering Giants. Orca Book Publishers. Victoria. 137pp.Ellis, Richard. 1985. The Book of Whales. Random House, Inc. Toronto. 202pp.
Fact: Patterns of pigmentation, scarring and shape of the humpback flukes are unique to each individual.
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are relatively new additions to our whale watching trips. This species migrates between high latitude summer feeding grounds and low latitude winter breeding grounds. Like the gray whales, they too migrate from the cold summer waters to warmer more tropical regions for the winter.
In the North Pacific, the winter breeding grounds are off Japan, Hawaii and Mexico, whereas the summer feeding grounds are found in coastal waters of Alaska, British Columbia and the western United States. Individual humpbacks can be recognized by researchers through photo-identification of the ventral (underside) surface of the tail flukes. This helps in identifying individuals, estimating abundance and tracking movements. The patterns of pigmentation, scarring and shape of the flukes are unique to each individual. Thousands of humpbacks have been identified around the world.
Humpback whales are about as big as a gray whale. They will grow to between 11 and 15 metres (37 – 49ft) and weigh up to 30 tons. Humpbacks are smaller today than they were 100 years ago. This is because the big ones were preferentially killed by whalers in both the southern and northern hemispheres.
Humpback whales are distinguished by the big “hump” of the tail stock which is raised to the surface before a deep or long dive. These whales can also be recognized by their huge tail flukes, which are also raised above the surface before a long dive, and their very long pectoral flippers that are often seen while playing. When this species breathes, the blow or spout can often be seen for long distances, as it is very tall and often nearly a white colour.
Humpbacks were not regular visitors to the Victoria area until about five to 8 years ago. Now we regularly sight these visitors on our Prince of Whales whale watching trips especially in September and October.
Good Humpback Reference: Ellis, Richard. 1985. The Book of Whales. Random House, Inc. Toronto. 202pp.
Click here to proceed to the Canadian Humpback Catalogue
Fact: Minke whales are the smallest baleen whale in the North Pacific
Size - to a maximum length of 10 metres Colour – black or dark gray on the back and white on the belly and the undersides of the flippers - often have a gray stripe or ‘chevron’ on the side by the flipper Dorsal Fin - tall relative to overall size of animal - curved towards the back – usually the fin becomes visible at the same time as the blow Blow – low, bushy and usually inconspicuous
- is the smallest baleen whale in the North Pacific - white ‘bands’ on the pectoral flippers
Fact: Harbour porpoises are the most shy of all the porpoises
Size – to a maximum length of 1.8 metres
Colour – dark brown to gray, lighter colour on the belly
Dorsal Fin - triangular, same colour as body
- distinct line from mouth to top on pectoral fin
- more of a solitary animal than the dall’s
- does not bring body completely out of the water
Fact: Dalls porpoise are the largest of the porpoise family and are a maximum size of 2.2m (7.2ft) and can weigh in at about 220kg (485lb).
The Dall’s Porpoise is a common sight in the waters off Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan De Fuca, Prince of Whale’s common whale watching grounds. They are the most playful of the porpoise family, and being almost hyperactive they will zigzag and dart around a fast moving boat. They have been known to approach speeds of 55km/h (35mph). They are the largest of the porpoise family and are a maximum size of 2.2m (7.2ft) and can weigh in at about 220kg (485lb).