by Ranger Jim Serpa
"Look alive mates, that be no normal
beast, it's the Devilfish we're after!"
Had you been a whaler in the mid-1800's that
cry might have made your blood run cold.
Today we find it hard to believe that the
whale that Californians have come to cherish
was so feared that only the bravest would try
and harpoon them. The cycle has turned so
dramatically that the public is now spending
large amounts of money to get a good view of
them. In fact, there are several companies
that will actually take you to the breeding
grounds in the shallow coastal lagoons of
central and southern Baja California where
you have a chance to pet these mammoth creatures.
The Gray Whale is not really a big whale,
as whales go, reaching a length of about 40
to 50 feet. As in all baleen whale the females
are larger than the males. Baleen is the
material that hangs down from the roof of
the mouth in non-toothed whales (Mysticetes)
and basically is used to filter out the small
crustaceans that many large whales feed on.
The baleen is made of material similar to our
fingernails and is cream colored in Gray Whales.
The Grays are considered by scientists to be
the most primitive of all the baleen whales.
Lacking a dorsal fin, the Gray Whale is not
really gray at all, but almost black. Us
Southern Californians might call it "charcoal".
The gray color comes from the fact that most
older Grays are covered with a large number
of light colored parasites, most notably
barnacles and whale lice. As gross as this
may sound these lice actually help the whale
out by dining on dead flesh which, left alone,
might cause infection.
You can actually tell if the Gray Whale
you are lucky enough to spot is right handed
or left handed (or flippered if you prefer)
by noticing which side of the whale is the
most barnacle and lice-free. This whale likes
to feed in the shallow waters of the Bering
and Chukchi Seas, diving down and taking a
large bite out of the soft mud, then using its
enormous tongue to force the silt out through
the baleen leaving the delectable crustaceans
to be swallowed. If the whale has a right
side that is fairly clean of parasites then
you can assume that the animal is right handed,
and vice versa. It's interesting to note that
the Gray Whale has about the same percentages
of right and left handed individuals as do
Until recently it was thought that these
whales fasted the entire length of their 12,000
mile migration, but we now know that the Gray
will feed if it gets a chance. Unfortunately
for the hungry whale, good food is hard to
find down here.
At Doheny we can spot Gray Whales as early
as late December with the bulk of the population
heading south past us by the end of January.
In February and March you can even get a better
view as the whales make their northward migration
back to the abundant feeding grounds of the
Chukchi and Bering Seas.
These whales reach sexual maturity at 5 to
11 years of age. Gestation normally takes
13 months with the beautiful bouncing baby
tipping the scale at a mere 1200 to 1500 pounds!
Under ideal conditions these whales give birth
only once every two years. The whale calf
can grow an amazing 50 pounds a day or more.
The rapid weight gain is important if the calf
is going to be strong enough to make the 6,000
mile one way trip back up north to the whales'
summer feeding grounds. This is accomplished
by consuming vast amounts of highly fat laden
mother's milk. The Gray Whales' milk is up to
40% milk fat. By comparison, cows milk is
approximately 4% fat.
The history of the species is tragic to
say the least. At one time there were two
different populations of Gray Whales, one in
the Pacific and a separate population in the
North Atlantic. The Atlantic population was
hunted to extinction by the end of the 1700's.
The population in the Pacific was actually
hunted to the brink of extinction twice, once
in the 1800's and again in the 1900's. It wasn't
until 1938 that it was decided by international
treaty to stop all commercial Gray Whale hunting.
Since that time this remarkable creature has
made a miraculous comeback, with some experts
estimating their populations at 21,000. And
in January of 1993 the whale was taken off
the endangered species list. The whale is
still protected by treaty from commercial
harvesting. The latest threats to the Gray
Whales existence is the possibility of a huge
salt producing plant being built on one of the
birthing lagoons in Baja and the fact that
several countries want to start hunting them
again. So far, neither has come to fruition
and, hopefully, we have learned from our mistakes
and won't put this animal at risk again.
So keep your eyes open for these giants
and check with the rangers to see if any have
been spotted the next time you visit the park.