Ocean Kayaking and Seeing Gray Whales
ALL ABOUT GREY WHALES
Those paddling off the coast of Vancouver Island may have the opportunity to spot a North Pacific Grey Whale on its migratory route between the shallow lagoons of Baja California to the chilly artic seas off northern Canada and Alaska. These whales are frequently spotted because of their predictable breathing patterns and their tendency to stay close to land in order to feed off the sea bottom.
Grey whales are baleen whales meaning that instead of teeth they have 130 to 180 off-white plates in their mouths. Instead of being a predatory whale, like the orca, grey whales are bottom-feeders eating small crustaceans and worms they scoop from the mud on the sea floor. Grey whales generally stick to swimming in fairly shallow water since they need to breath air but also need to frequently travel to the bottom of the ocean for food. This means they are “coastal” whales; staying in shallow water near the coastline where they can breath and feed continuously.
These whales are called grey whales because of the grey patches on their dark skin. At birth, grey whales are almost entirely black and they develop the their grey patches as they grow older. They also have several other markings on their skin. They often have patches of barnacles, orange whale lice and scratches all over their body. Sometimes they will even have marking from the teeth of a predator such as the orca. These whales have no dorsal fin, just a hump where that fin would be. They have pectoral fins that are shaped like paddles and a tail fluke that can be seen briefly above the surface of the water as they submerge themselves to feed on the bottom. Grey whales are very large mammals. They weigh just under a ton and are often more than 10-feet long at birth. They grow to be around 45 feet long and 30 to 40 tons heavy.
Migrating grey whales are frequently spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island, probably because their routine breathing pattern makes it easy to predict where they will pop up next. Grey whales will come up for air 3 to 5 times in a thirty second intervals before going down for an extended amount of time. While they can go under for up to 15 minutes, they usually stay down for a shorter time period than that. So once you’ve originally spotted a grey whale, you can expect them to come up again fairly soon. They also travel fairly slow, 3 – 6 miles an hour, making it easy to keep pace with them.
Mating and Migration
The average Pacific grey whale travels 10,000 – 14,000 miles a year, traveling between the lagoons where they mate and give birth in Baja to their chilly summer homes in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Whales reach sexual maturity once they are 36 feet long, which occurs at between 5 and 11 years of age. Once impregnated, grey whales have a gestation period that is one year long. Once they have given birth, they will nurse the calves for 7 to 8 months. Grey whale mothers have been given the nickname “Devilfish” because they are violently protective of their calves.
The north Pacific grey whales that we see migrating twice a year off the coast of Vancouver Island are part of the strongest population of grey whales on the planet. Once upon a time, there were three such healthy populations of grey whales. There were the North Atlantic Grey Whales that are now extinct, largely due to over-hunting. There was also once a healthy population of the Western North Pacific or Korean Grey Whales. This population is now dramatically depleted. While these sad truths are unfortunate, the North Grey Whales are lucky that they have not fallen onto the extinct or near-extinct species list as well. In the 19 th century, the North Pacific grey whales were hunted to near extinction after their calving lagoons were discovered. Fortunately, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) granted the whales its full protection in 1947 and the eastern Pacific population has since flourished. It is estimated that around 20,000 grey whales swim off the western coast of North America today. This number is thought to be close to their original population.