Tofino whales: the Gray Whale
by Lisa Fletcher, Tofino
It's that time of year again... time to honor our fellow mammals, the gray whales. And rightfully so, the gray whale has the longest migration of any other mammal. They travel over 9000 km from wintering breeding ground to summer feeding areas. Similar to Tofitians, the gray whale spends January to March in Baja, Mexico. The pregnant females give birth to a 450 kg, 5 m long calve, before heading north by late February. Their destination; the Bering Sea to gorge for the summer! Here, they need to gain up to 30% of their body weight to make the migration south again when its time. When they travel, gray whales don't travel together, they move in procession. The males, newly pregnant females, and juveniles leave first, and the moms and calves follow soon after. On the southward migration, it's the opposite, the moms and calves leave first, with the rest following suit.
Gray whales are classified as baleen whales (as opposed to toothed). This means that instead of using teeth to feed, they use a giant filter called a baleen. The baleen is made of keratin, like our fingernails, and is arranged in 2 parallel plates that look like combs. These whales rely primarily on amphipods-small shrimp like creatures, to fill their bellies. It's hard to imagine that an animal that weighs up to 30,000 kg and is 15m long, could ever possibly eat enough small shrimp to satisfy the 1000kg of food they need a day. To accomplish this, these whales have a tactic unique just to them; they tilt their head slightly, open their mouth and drag it along the bottom of ocean floor. Sediments and bottom-dwelling critters are sucked in and filtered through their baleen plates.
The West Coast is a rich feeding ground for the migrants. There are thought to be as many as 40 or 50 gray whales that reside along the coast of Vancouver Island and Washington state during the summer months, some staying year round. The best time to see gray whales on our coast is from February to June. But, the gray whale hasn't always been so abundant. In the late 17th century, commercial whale hunting began for meat, blubber, and baleen, and became increasingly intense with improved technology. By the late 1800's, the gray whale population had plummeted. Although the International Whaling Commission gave the gray whale protection in 1947, the North Atlantic population has gone extinct and the western North Pacific population (Korean) is low at only 100-200 whales. Fortunately, the eastern North Pacific population is now relatively healthy with about 20,000 whales. Currently, the Species At Risk Act (sara) lists it as a species of concern.
Local research efforts from the Pacific Rim National Park, Strawberry Isle Research Society, and The Pacific Wildlife Foundation have no doubt played a huge role in the preservation of the gray whale.
Lisa Fletcher is finishing the last year of her biology degree and is a fervent believer in evolution and revolution.
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