Gray whale

(Eschrichtius robustus)
Gray Whale Santa Barbara Channel

Breaching Gray Whale Santa Barbara Coastline  - Photo Credit: Bob Perry

When enjoying an adventure on one of our whale watching expeditions in the Santa Barbara Channel or near the Channel Islands, you may have the inspiring experience of spotting a gray whale or even a pod of them. These large ocean mammals migrate within about 20 miles of shore, making spotting them along the California coastline a frequent occurrence.

Whale hunting brought the gray whale to the brink of extinction, but with a ban on hunting, the population began to recover. Beginning in 1994, the gray whale was listed as a protected species.

The gray whale is also known as a California or Pacific gray whale and is characterized by slate gray to marbled coloring patterns with portions of their backs and snouts being covered with sea organisms such as parasites, barnacles and whale lice. The array of free-loaders gives the gray whale a rather fascinating appearance.

The gray whale has a hump on its back and a ridge consisting of 6 to 12 bumps, but no dorsal fin. They range in size from 15 feet to 16 feet at birth to approximately 45 feet to 49 feet in length as adults. The head of the gray whale is rather small and narrow, forming an arch between the snout and blowhole. The bodies are powerfully built and glide effortlessly through the waters with small, paddle-shaped flippers. Gray whales weigh between 30 and 40 tons.

The gray whale uses its snout to eat off the ocean floor. It has bony structures in its mouth called baleen which are used to separate and filter the food. The baleen plates are located in the upper jaw and are about a foot and a half long. The baleen plates are bone-like and were historically used in the making of corsets and even as umbrella ribs.

The gray whale migrates from northern Pacific waters near Alaska in the summer months to the warm waters off the California and Mexico coast. Migration usually begins about October as the ice floats form. With the gray whales traveling in pods and cow-calf pairs, their route covers over 12,000 miles. The California coastline is a great location to witness the marvel of the gray whale.