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Gray Whale

Overview

  • Status
    Least Concern
  • Population
    estimated 150 individuals (western population); stable (eastern population)
  • Scientific Name
    Eschrichtius robustus
  • Length
    between 40 and 50 feet long
  • Habitats
    Oceans

Gray whales have a hump and a ridge of sharp bumps along their backs, instead of a dorsal fin. They are a type of baleen whale, which means they filter food from the water through special bristly structures in their mouths. Gray whales stay close to shore and feed in shallow water. Their well-known migrations take them between feeding and breeding areas, swimming as much as 12,000 miles round trip.

Critically endangered western gray whales migrate into their summer feeding grounds near Sahkalin Island, Russia in late May or early June and return to their winter feeding grounds in the South China Sea in late autumn. Summer feeding grounds for the eastern population lie in the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Russia. In the winter, these eastern gray whales migrate south along the west coast of the U.S to Mexico to breed and have their calves.

WWF supports a gray whale research team in the Gulf of California’s San Ignacio Lagoon—one of the best places in the world to see gray whales with their calves. The calm, warm waters of the lagoon are a safe place for young whales, free from predators like killer whales. Locals here affectionately call gray whales "friendly ones" as they have an unusual tendency to approach whale-watching boats and check out the occupants.

Gray Whales' Remarkable Migration

Gray whales migrate more than 10,000 miles roundtrip each year—one of the longest for any mammal on Earth. Each winter and spring, their spectacular migration between northern feeding grounds and southern nursery areas offers amazing opportunities for whale watchers along the west coast. The Arctic feeding grounds of the gray whale are critical to their survival, as they must eat enough to sustain them until they return the next year.

 

Gray whale watching

Why They Matter

  • Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. They are also highly vulnerable to human activities in the ocean. WWF works to ensure they can live and thrive in their natural habitat.

Threats

  • Population estimated 150 individuals (western population); stable (eastern population)
  • Extinction Risk Least Concern
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Gray Whales are threatened by oil and gas development

Drilling platform in the Gray Whale habitat area off the Sakhalin coast in the Russian Federation.

Oil and gas development, entanglement in fishing gear, and collisions with ships threaten gray whales. The western North Pacific gray whale is on the verge of extinction because of such threats. The waters off Russia’s Sakhalin Island, a main feeding habitat for them in the summer, are being targeted for oil and gas development. In the eastern Pacific Ocean, the potential for oil and gas exploration in the Bering and Chukchi Seas also exists. Whales are very sensitive to noise and such industrial activities generate massive underwater booms. The gray whale must get an entire year’s worth of food during those summer months and any disruption could have significant impact on this process.

What WWF Is Doing

WWF and partners have been instrumental in strengthening protection for the western North Pacific gray whales. We helped restrict seismic surveys that were shown to displace gray whales from their feeding ground and continue to urge the Russian government to establish a gray whale sanctuary off Sakhalin Island.

WWF and other organizations campaigned to stop an offshore oil drilling platform from being built in that critically endangered population's habitat. In October 2013, the energy company announced that they would postpone construction for five years.

Further south, in the Gulf of California, WWF supports a research team that is monitoring the population size and health of the gray whales that return each winter. The team takes photos to identify individuals, collects tissue samples and records their underwater communication.

Other activities include:
•    pushing for stricter environmental standards for offshore oil and gas projects
•    engaging a local energy company regarding their operations
•    running a public campaign to raise awareness regarding the threats posed by the Sakhalin offshore oil and gas projects

Experts

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