As yet unnamed species
In Our Region
Although the whale is as yet unnamed, Tom Deméré, Curator of Paleontology, states that this whale is related to the modern gray whale, but is not in the same genus.
The living gray whale, up to 45 feet (13.7 meters) long, is a bulk filter feeder with a streamlined body, tapered head, and 2-5 short grooves along the throat. Instead of teeth, like all baleen whales, the gray whale has fine keratin tubules that hang from the roof of the mouth in cornified plates.
With these baleen sieves, gray whales trap minute organisms by rolling to one side on the ocean floor and sucking in mud, water and tiny invertebrates from the substrate, and pressing out the water with their tongue. They are the only baleen whale that "mines" the ocean bottom in this manner. Long scours in the mud attest to their benthic foraging habits. Small crustaceans called amphipods make up a large portion of their diet.
The gray whale finds most of its food in the mud or sand of shallow sea floors, along the Pacific coastline. These whales migrate from the cold waters of Alaska and Siberia all the way to the breeding lagoons in Baja California. Heavily depleted during the intense whaling industry of the 1800s-1900s, almost to extinction, this species has since bounced back, thanks to environmental protection laws.
Gray whales are covered with a thick layer of blubber that serves to reduce drag in the water, acts as an energy reservoir to store fat, and insulates against cold water temperatures. The species is restricted to coastal areas because of its bottom feeding diet, and is found inshore or offshore in shallow continental shelf waters.
Gray whales do all their feeding in summer and fall in high latitudes, feeding heavily from May through October, storing fat reserves. During this time, the pack ice retreats, exposing the sea floor to daylight, which in turn causes a bloom of microorganisms.
During the rest of year polar feeding grounds are covered with ice, so the whales migrate to warm winter breeding grounds. During the migration, the whales fast for 6 months or so, losing about 30% of their body weight.
Breeding starts most often in late November and December during the migration south. Gestation lasts about a year. A single calf is born, weighing up to1500 pounds (680 kg).
The mother whale is fiercely protective of her baby, often stroking it. The baby whale nurses while at the lagoons and on migration, always staying close to its mother. The milk is very rich, made up of 53 % fat .Calves are weaned at about 8 months of age. The long return migration north starts in February.
These animals were once called "devil fish" by whalers who harpooned the whales and witnessed their ferocious attempts to defend their young. Now that they are protected, some gray whales are known to be very friendly and curious and seek out physical contact with humans.
Their skin has large gray and white patches, and is covered with scarred areas and parasites; in fact they have more ectoparasites than any other cetacean. Their lifespan is unknown, although it is perhaps 80 years or so.
The North Atlantic population of gray whales is now extinct. Sub-fossils, so called because they are less than 10,000 years old, have been found on the east coast from New Jersey to Florida, the most recent dating to 1650 AD. The demise of this population was most likely due to whaling.
A Korean or western north Pacific population of gray whales is very close to being eliminated also, most likely due to whaling. The eastern north Pacific population is by far the largest surviving group, and probably amounts to about 20,000 individuals.
The gray whale was listed as an endangered species in 1969 by the Federal government. After making a comeback many years later, it has been de-listed. However, there is concern about warming trends in Arctic waters, since this may result in a sudden decrease of food resources. An increase in mortality in 1999 and 2000 seemed to indicate some gray whales were starving.
This species continues to be threatened by virtue of the fact that they are coastal animals, and therefore closely connected with ship traffic, pollution, and oil and gas extraction.
Text: Margaret Dykens and Lynett Gillette