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Gray Whales in Cabo San Lucas

Gray Whales are typically the second most commonly encountered whale species seen on Cabo San Lucas Whale watching tours. Cabo San Lucas is the southern most wintering range of the Gray Whale. The Gray Whales arrive in the Cabo San Lucas area usually in late December. The Gray Whales encountered here are typically adults in small groups while mating groups, mothers and their calves are seen in bays and lagoons to the north of the Baja.

The Gray Whales seen in Cabo San Lucas are members of the Eastern Pacific Population. This population has been estimated at 22,000 whales with an annual growth rate nearing 8%. The population is still considered endangered and is threatened by entanglement, ship strike, marine environment degradation, sound pollution, and especially environmental pollution as they feed from the sea floor where much garbage can collect.

You can download general Gray Whale information on this page kindly prepared and shared by the American Cetacean Society.

Gray Whales Migration to the Baja

magdalena bay gray whale migration map

Gray Whales migrate to the lagoons and Bays of the Baja for the winter and northwards to the cool seas of Alaska each summer. The Gray Whales are a highly migratory species, the longest migration route measuring 11,000 kilometers! This long distance migration can take them up to 3 months transiting at 8km/hr.

The protected bays and lagoons of the Baja provide a safe haven to the Gray Whales to breed and calve. As over 97% of the Gray Whale population migrates to a small coastline and small bays in the Baja every winter this makes an excellent opportunity for Gray Whale watching tours, research and conservation. In some bays there have been over 2,000 whales counted!

Gray Whale Calving and Mating

Gray Whale mating is usually seen only within the Baja’s bays and lagoons. In late December the first Gray Whales begin to arrive in the Baja, Mexico. Typically pregnant mothers arrive first, followed by females who will soon mate. Gray Whales typically mate in small non-monogamous groups. This ensures the female a successful pregnancy. The female Gray Whale will reach the age of sexual reproduction at 8 years old and mate every second year living to between 50 and 70 years – thats a lot of babies!

The Gray Whales give birth to a calf 4m long and weighing 800kg. Gestation is 11-13 months with a single calf being born. The baby will nurse on up to 180 liters of milk a day and can grow up to 25kg a day! There have been as many as 900 baby Gray Whales counted in one bay in 2014! The mother and baby Gray Whales will be the last to leave the lagoons to migrate north. The mother will exercise the baby daily by swimming into the currents of the bay as it floods to strengthen the baby for the migration.

Gray Whale Information

Classification

Gray whales are the most coastal of the large whales, rarely venturing more than 20 – 30kms offshore and has for this reason become one of the world’s most watched whales. They are also well known for performing one of the world’s longest migrations, making a yearly round trip of 15,000-20,000 km. In the past there have been three populations of gray whale. The North Atlantic population became extinct in the 17th -18th centuries for reasons that are not clear, but their bones are still occasionally uncovered by the wind on the sandy coastal beaches of North Carolina. There is a tiny remnant population in the western North Pacific of no more than 130 individuals. They are known to use feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island, Russia. Today, the main population is in the eastern North Pacific, which was reduced to a few hundred individuals by the early 1900s. Protection has however led to an increase in numbers and the population is considered to be recovering.

Appearance

The gray whale has a relatively small, narrow head, which arches distinctively between its blowhole and snout. The baleen plates are about 50cm long. It has grey skin, which can be slate-blue or marbled white; small yellow parasitic crustaceans on its skin, and often as much as 100 – 200kg of barnacles and whale lice attached to the head and body. Young gray whales are darker and have fewer barnacles and white marks. The gray whale has a robust body and flippers which are small and paddle-shaped. Instead of a dorsal fin there is a low hump with ‘knuckles’ between the hump and the tail. This whale’s appearance and behaviour make it difficult to mistake for another species in the wild.

Behaviour

Gray whales are active, inquisitive and friendly, often approaching boats. They show a range of surface behaviours, including spyhopping, lobtailing and breaching. They can also be seen surf-riding in very shallow waters. Gray whales are bottom feeders; they hunt seabed creatures by rolling over on one side then swimming slowly along sucking up sediment and the small creatures that live in it. They then sieve out the water and silt through their baleen, trapping the food behind. Most gray whales turn on their right side to feed, but like humans some are ‘left-handed’. Because of this, the baleen on the right side is usually shorter and more worn than the baleen on the left side, and the right side of the head is more scarred from rooting around on the bottom. A typical group size is only 1 – 3 individuals. Gray whales are usually gentle creatures but gained a reputation as ‘devil fish’ for allegedly attacking the boats of those hunting them, which may have been partly due to defence of their young. Gray whales can live up to 70 years old.

Distribution

Over a lifetime, a gray whale migrates the equivalent distance of a return trip to the moon. Gray whales are now only found in the North Pacific and adjacent waters. The larger eastern North Pacific population summers and feeds mainly in the shallow waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and the northwestern Bering Sea; a few also summer and feed along the Pacific coast from Vancouver Island (Canada) to central California (US). The population migrates in autumn along the coast to winter breeding grounds on the west coast of Baja California (Mexico) and the southeastern Gulf of California. The much smaller western subpopulation summers in the Okhotsk Sea. The major known feeding grounds are off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island (Russian Federation), but some animals are occasionally seen off the eastern coast of Kamchatka (Russian Federation) and in other coastal waters of the northern Okhotsk Sea. This population’s migration route is not well known. The species is listed as Least Concern by IUCN, whilst the western North Pacific stock is listed as Critically Endangered. Pollution, prey depletion and, in recent years, the resumption of a small scale hunt by the Makah Tribe off Washington State, impact the eastern North Pacific population today, as well as habitat loss, human disturbance and entanglement in fishing nets. The western North Pacific population is under threat from large-scale oil and gas exploration and extraction on its feeding grounds, in addition to chemical pollution, incidental entanglement in fishing nets and vessel collisions.

Mexican name:
  • Ballena Gris
Maximum length:
  • Male: 14m
  • Female: 15m
  • Calf: 4.9m
Maximum weight:
  • Male: 45,000kg
  • Female: 45,000kg
  • Calf: 680 kg
Diet:
  • Bottom-dwelling crustaceans (amphipods and isopods), e.g. red crabe
  • Molluscs
  • Other invertebrates including Polychaete worms and cephalopods
  • Herring eggs
Estimated population:

15,000 – 22,000

IUCN Listing:

Eastern North Pacific stock LC / Western North Pacific stock CR

CITES Appendix:

I

CMS Appendix:

Not Listed


cabo san lucas map gray whale

Known range of the Gray Whale