An Intriguing Encounter With Gray Whales


The impression received upon approaching a sleeping whale is above all one of enormity. The whale’s physical presence is overwhelming, overpowering. From time to time, one hears it breathing, and is perhaps sprinkled by its spout. At that moment, man realizes that he is approaching a life form beyond the scale of human reckoning; a mysterious presence, embodied in an incredible black cylinder.​—Jacques-Yves Cousteau, marine explorer.

THE above words well describe the feelings we had as our little motorboat drew near the gray whales in the sparkling waters of Magdalena Bay in Baja California, Mexico. We had long wanted to observe these majestic creatures, which migrate every year to the lagoons of Baja to mate and give birth.

Our guide shut off the motor and quietly rowed closer. The whales seemed oblivious of our approach. We watched their courtship ritual as they rolled, spouted, and sounded, showing off their flukes (tails). Some of them were “spyhopping”​—pushing their heads up out of the water and observing their surroundings.

 Our guide told us that while regulations do not allow us to get closer to the whales than 100 feet [30 m], curious mother whales and their calves frequently approach skiffs and allow themselves to be touched!

A Struggle for Survival

After our encounter we were moved to do some research. We learned that during the 19th century, eager hunters nearly decimated the eastern Pacific whale population. In time, the demand for whale oil and bone declined, and the whale population recovered. Then, in the early 1900’s, when boats became ‘floating factories’ that enabled hunters to process whale carcasses on board, hunting resumed. Once again, the gray whale of the eastern Pacific was brought near extinction.

In 1947 full protection was given to the gray whale by the International Whaling Commission. In recent years the Mexican government has even established whale sanctuaries and the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. * Now, with a  population of some 26,000, the gray whale is no longer an endangered species.

Their Remarkable Migration

The summer feeding grounds of the gray whale are in the far north, in the Bering and Chukchi seas. There the whales gorge themselves on small crustaceans, building up blubber for their 10,000-mile [16,000 km] trip south to the Baja lagoons and back. Traveling at a rate of between three and six miles [5-10 km] per hour, the whales take from two to three months to reach their destination. Much of their body weight is lost during the migration and the months in Baja California, as the gray whales live almost entirely off their fat reserves.

Pregnant females are the first to arrive in the lagoons, where they give birth in the calm waters. The calves are born tail first and must be brought to the surface as quickly as possible in order for them to breathe. The birth is assisted by two other females, called aunties, who act as midwives. The gestation period is 12 to 13 months, so a single calf is born every two or three years. Imagine giving birth to a baby weighing 1,500 pounds [680 kg] and measuring about 16 feet [5 m] in length!

The calves nurse for about eight months on milk that is 53 percent fat​—ten times richer than cow’s milk. The whales stay in the lagoons for two to three months, from January to the middle of March, which allows the calves to build up a thick layer of blubber to sustain them on the northward journey and to keep them warm in the colder waters of the Arctic.

We found all these facts about the gray whale fascinating, adding to our unforgettable experience of seeing them in their habitat. These creatures caused us to reflect on the words of Psalm 148:7: “Praise Jehovah from the earth, you sea monsters and all you watery deeps.”


^ par. 9 The International Whaling Commission allows only subsistence hunting by the native peoples of Alaska and Siberia. These measures have had a positive effect on the gray whale, which is now considered friendly by the local population because of the behavior mentioned by our guide.

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Instead of teeth, the gray whale, a baleen whale, has cream-colored baleen plates (shown in the photo). These are two to ten inches in length and hang from each side of its upper jaw. The plates are made of keratin​—the same material that makes up our fingernails. The gray whale is a bottom feeder​—that is, it dredges the bottom of the sea, sucking up sediment and crustaceans. Then it filters out the water through the fringes of the baleen.

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Courtesy Gray whales with Winston

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▪ The gray whale has white patches on its skin​—the result of barnacles and parasites.

▪ Males grow to 45 feet [14 m]​—longer than a city bus—​and females are slightly larger.

▪ The gray whale has two to five creases on its ventral throat, which allow the throat to expand while feeding.

▪ The average weight of a gray whale is 16 tons, but some have reached weights of 30 to 40 tons.

▪ The gray whale surfaces every three to five minutes to breathe, but it can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes.

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© Richard Herrmann/

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© Michael S. Nolan/

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

© Howard Hall/