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Gray Whales Migration

Gray whales can be seen off the Oregon coast almost every month of the year. Summer residents reside along the Oregon coast from May-October. Migrating whales can be seen on their southbound migration from December-January en route to three lagoons in Baja California - San Ignacio, Magdalena Bay and Scammons Lagoon - where they mate and give birth to their calves. In San Ignacio lagoon, we hear of the friendlies. These gray whales purposefully and willingly come up to boats to interact with humans. If you do not interact with them, they leave and find another boat that will interact. Many times mothers will push their newborn calves up to a boat for a human encounter. It is unclear as to the true purpose of these actions on the part of the whale. Oregon whale watchers also encounter very friendly whales during the summer months, although it is illegal to touch them in U.S. waters.

The northbound migration of gray whales is from February through June as they head to their Arctic feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Late in the spring (April -June) many mother/calf pairs are seen heading north. Females with their calves need to travel slower.

The gray whale is one of the most curious of all the cetaceans (collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises). It is the only species that I am aware of that literally pushes its’ baby up to boats in the lagoons of Mexico so humans can interact with them. Having been a naturalist in San Ignacio Lagoon, I am convinced that the moms use humans as a babysitter.

My good friend, Linda, and I observed this behavior various times. The mom would bring the calf up to the boat and then many times would leave and rest about 30 feet away from the pangas while the calf continued to interact with humans. The calf would spyhop (stick its head straight up) and look at the people or approach the boats close enough to be “petted.” We observed one calf that repeatedly went from boat to boat interacting with people until it was so tired that it could barely keep its eyes open but yet it still came and interacted. The friendly gray whale moms seem to be passing this “friendliness” onto their calves.


The most conspicuous identifying characteristics of gray whales are their size, distinctive mottled gray coloring, dorsal hump (no dorsal fin) and the knuckles along the back behind the dorsal hump.

Size: Gray whales range in size from 35 to 45 feet long, and weigh 30 to 40 tons—about the length of a school bus and the weight of ten elephants. Females are about 5 feet longer than the males. Gray whales are intermediate in size compared to other well-known whales. In comparison, blue whales are 80 to 100 feet long and orcas (killer whales) are 20-25 feet long.

Coloration. Gray whales are so called because of their mottled gray coloration. The natural pigmentation can range from almost black to almost white, and can include white spots that range from the size of a marble to a basketball. This mottled appearance is enhanced by barnacles, barnacle scars, and whale lice.

Rostrum (Head Region). The rostrum extends from the tip of the snout to the blowholes, a length of about six feet. The rostrum of adult gray whales is covered with barnacles and whale lice. Gray whales that feed on the bottom, rub off barnacles on a specific side. Most gray whales are right rostrumed, feeding on the right side, but a few are left rostrumed.

Young gray whales have a dimpled rostrum with one hair in each dimple. As the whale ages, the dimples and hairs become less prominent due to increased blubber thickness.


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