One of the most prominent tourist attractions in Long Beach CA is the Aquarium of the Pacific. And one of the popular activities at the Aquarium are the whale-watching tours.
The Pacific Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is related to the Humpback Whale and the Fin Whale, but is distinctive enough to be placed in its own family and genus—the Gray Whale has noticeably shorter baleen plates in its mouth, different skeletal proportions, and lacks the deep throat folds found in other whales. It also lacks a dorsal fin. Adult Gray Whales can reach a length of 50 feet. They range along the eastern Pacific along the coast of North America. A smaller population also can be found in the western Pacific along the coasts of Russia, China, Japan, and Korea. Today we know from DNA analysis that although there has been some gene exchange between the two populations, they have historically been separated, and many authorities now consider them as different subspecies.
From bones and old skeletons that have been found, it is now also known that there once was another species, the Atlantic Gray Whale, that ranged from Canada and Britain down into the Mediterranean Sea and along the American coast to Florida. This species appears to have gone extinct in the 1800’s, likely wiped out by whale hunters.
The Pacific Gray Whales are best-known for making the longest yearly migrations of any mammal. For most of the year they are Arctic animals, living off the coast of Alaska and Canada where they feed on small sea crustaceans which they filter from the shallow seafloor sediment using the plates of baleen in their mouths.
Each autumn the whales begin to move south towards warmer water, traveling over 6,000 miles along the North American coast until they reach Baja California, in Mexico, by December. These are the breeding grounds, where females will seek males for mating, and where females who are already pregnant from last year will give birth to a single calf. By March, the whales will begin the long trip back to the Arctic, with the males and females without calves leaving first: mothers with new calves will wait until April or May when their newborns are strong enough for the journey. The whales do not eat during their entire 16,000-mile round trip, depending on body fat which they have stored up during the summer. The newborn calves grow quickly on the mother’s rich milk.
Since the youngsters are vulnerable to Killer Whale packs, the returning Grays will stick to the shallow water close to the shore as they travel back north. This makes them a favorite with whale watchers, and the yearly spring Gray Whale migration provides an economic boon for the ecotourism industry.
The Gray Whale’s habit of staying close to shore, however, also made it vulnerable to hunting. In the 19th century, whaling was a thriving industry, and many species were hunted relentlessly by American whalers for their oil and for their baleen “whalebone” (although the shorter baleen plates found in the Gray were considered inferior to that of other whale species). In the shallow coastal waters the normally-passive Gray Whales, unable to dive to escape their human hunters, would often turn and attack them instead—especially mothers protecting newborn calves—earning them the nickname “Devil Fish”. By the middle of the 20th century the western Gray Whale had been almost completely wiped out by Japanese and Russian whalers, and the eastern population was severely threatened.
In the 1960s, the environmentalist movement made a massive effort to protect the whales, and populations slowly began to recover. Today it is estimated that there are about 20,000 eastern Pacific Gray Whales along the North American coast, while the western population remains severely depleted at around 150 individuals. DNA analysis has established, however, that as the eastern population has grown some individuals have moved over to join the western subspecies near Japan. Also in recent years there have been sightings of Gray Whales in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, indicating that as the ice packs in the Arctic shrink, individuals from the eastern Pacific may be moving through and attempting to re-establish themselves in the ancestral home of the now-extinct Atlantic species. There has been some talk among conservation biologists of intentionally moving a number of individuals from California to both the eastern Pacific and the Atlantic to help this process of re-colonization.
The whale-watching industry has in the meantime become of immense economic significance to coastal towns in Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. Each year thousands of tourists flock to see the migrating whales. The Gray Whales are in turn curious and inquisitive creatures and often voluntarily approach the boats: in some of their breeding lagoons in Baja California, individual whales will even allow the humans to touch them as they float next to them. In Long Beach, the Aquarium of the Pacific runs daily whale-watching boats for the tourists during the migration season, and also recruits volunteers to do an annual census count of Gray Whales as they pass by.