Cetacean Society International

Working for whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide

CSI Photo Gallery

Gray Whales

(Eschrichtius robustus)

This gray whale is breaching, and because most gray whales migrate along the west coast of North America within a mile from shore, people are probably watching and cheering onshore. Commercial whale watching began in the 1970's, as people wanted to get out to where the gray whales passed in migration. There is a smaller population that migrates along the east coast of Asia, and there used to be gray whales in the North Atlantic before whalers killed them off. Listening for waves, tasting rivers, knowing the path, gray whales migrate because they must bear their young in warm waters, but must return to prey-rich colder waters thousands of miles north to find enough food to survive. What effects have the glacial epochs had on this species' way of life?
The blow of a gray whale, and most other large whales, can often be heard or seen from many miles away. Because cetaceans always have to surface to breathe, whalers could often locate large whales easily. Once whales became frightened or stressed they might try to stay down longer and change directions. But they would have to surface eventually, and then, having to blow more often to catch their breath, they would again become hunted. Today whale watchers still find most whales by the blows. And sometimes the whales can't escape if there are too many boats, or aggressive whale watchers that always try to get closer. Is this the reason gray whales swim farther offshore of some areas than they used to? Some whales have learned to breathe softly at the surface, so their blow is not obvious or loud. Are they evading whale lovers?
The orange-yellow color in this whale's back is from thousands of creatures called cyamid lice, living in a terrible wound caused by a ship's propeller. By keeping the wound clean the cyamids may be accelerating the healing process. "Ship-strikes" are just one of many human hazards that too often injure and kill whales and dolphins. Did you know that a whale near the surface in front of a huge ship may never be aware the ship is coming, because the ship's loud noise is masked and distorted so that it doesn't seem like a threat? Scientists are experimenting with devices to alert whales, but nothing has worked well so far.
This gray whale's nickname is "Saffron", because of the orange-colored cyamid lice literally living on her skin. Whales are hosts to many creatures. Some feed on passing food, others feed on old skin or wounded tissue. To those creatures the whale is their whole world; they have to hang on tightly to their swimming world or be left to drift. Some may jump to another whale when there is an opportunity, like a young calf touching her mother. This whale is "spy hopping", bringing her eye close to the surface for a look at the small boat and smaller people. Her head weighs several tons. Think how powerful her tail must be to raise her up like this.
Gray whale mothers in the eastern Pacific Ocean come to special, naturally protected waters in Mexico to give birth. Their calves stay close for their first year, feasting often on fat-rich milk and growing incredibly quickly. Twice in 160 years human whalers have killed so many gray whales in these areas that the species was close to extinction. Today the species seems to have recovered, but faces growing threats from resource depletion, polluted waters and food, ship and propeller strikes, too-eager whale watchers, immune suppression, and economic development pressuring some of their breeding lagoons.
This open mouth of a gray whale nicknamed "Amazing Grace" is no threat at all. She's playing with these people. The yellow strips in her mouth are baleen, which trap creatures that live in or near the bottom, where she usually feeds. Sometimes she will cruise through dense clouds of creatures just above the bottom, and sometimes her prey will all be hidden in the sand. Then she will roll on her side along the bottom, open her mouth and move her tongue quickly, and suction will pull bottom sediments filled with tiny creatures into her mouth. The baleen filters the water and sediments away, leaving the prey behind to be swallowed. Some whales' baleen is worn down on one side, because they prefer to feed on that side to the other!
"Amazing Grace" was amazing and graceful and much more. She gave all these people a very thrilling, memorable and spiritual moment. The people had never known such a giant creature so close yet so gentle. She played with them as they might play with a puppy. She invited them to rub her head, and even inside her mouth! No one was scared as she lifted the boat out of the water, just in fun. She is still teaching her children to play with these funny toys. Many people come here to Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico eager to become toys to a whale.
This calf is resting on his mother's back! The attentive mothers seem always willing to play, and rarely allow the calf to stray far away. Still, in these protected nurseries, gray whale babies play with everything they find, and there are dangers to avoid. One is getting caught on sand flats exposed to the sun at low tide. Gray whales must learn at an early age to avoid being stranded, as they may spend much time is shallow water during their lifetimes. But here in these sunny Mexican lagoons stranding during the day can be a very painful lesson for any whale. Each year one or more gray whales die as a result. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)
This is the face of a baby gray whale, coming close to look at the photographer. Can you see her eye? Although babies are innocently curious about everything, most whale and dolphin mothers elsewhere would not allow this, and whale watchers know not to ever get between a mother and calf. From her years of experience, this calf's mother may have encouraged her calf to approach the boat, as she has learned that people in small boats in these lagoons are not dangerous and may even be fun toys to play with. But the boat propellers can be dangerous, and some calves do get hit and cut. It is the boat operator's responsibility always to prevent anything bad happening, but some don't pay attention. Most of the time everyone just has fun. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)
The gray whale calf's open mouth shows her new baleen, long thin tubes that grow down from her upper jaw, instead of teeth. Baleen is made of keratin, just like human fingernails. Her baleen will grow throughout her life, and fibers on the inside will fray and interlock to form the mesh suited to the size of prey her species usually hunts. Different baleen whale species have different baleen length, color and thickness, and it all relates to the size of their food. The depressions on her head usually have a single hair in them, and probably help her sense movement. We have a lot to learn about how a whale senses its environment. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)
This adult female whale, with her right eye above the line of her closed mouth, is coming very close underwater! Whales don't have facial expressions the way people do, so you can't tell what she's thinking by that. But think about it: with our masks and fins and snorkels humans underwater must look very weird to whales and dolphins. Maybe she's thinking: "what a strange creature!" She was very docile and gentle as she came close, obviously curious. To the photographer this was a magical, peaceful moment, a moment that many people dream of having. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)
As the whale swims slowly away underwater you have a view of her whole face, with her curved mouth line, eye just above, and left pectoral fin at bottom right. The water looks dark and murky to us, but with her specialized senses it is very different to her, her wonderful world to explore. As mothers take their babies north there will be many new creatures to learn about, some tiny but dangerous, some enormous but safe. There are many dangers to learn of that humans will have caused, but how can whales link the strange creatures in the boat with the creatures that cause those dangers? We can only hope that they don't. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)
This is the moment when hundreds of thousands of whale watchers all along the west coast of North America have said "Ohhh!" and "Ahhhh!" and all the cameras clicked, as the powerful yet graceful tail of a gray whale is raised and poised a moment before the whale glides deeper below the surface. Raising the tail like this saves swimming energy, by helping to push the whale into a long underwater glide perhaps a body length below the surface. It took a special photographer and sparkling sunlight to make this picture become art. (Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey)