With a significant focus on marine ecosystems and coastal life education, the Pacific Rim Whale Festival celebrates the continued protection and annual return of migrating Pacific grey whales to the coastal waters of the communities of Tofino, Ucluelet and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. An estimated 20,000 grey whales make the journey each year from the Baja Peninsula’s breeding and calving lagoons in Mexico toward their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near the Arctic. The migrating grey whales join resident grey whales, orcas, humpbacks and the occasional minke that can be seen in these Pacific Northwest waters any time of year off of the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Watch for updates to this section - we'll have lots more to share about whales that frequent our area as time goes on! In the meantime...
Meet the Pacific Rim Whale Festival’s Guest of Honour: The Grey Whale
A brief introduction to Eschrichtius robustus, by Jessie Vedova, Education Director, PRWF 2009
Size / Appearance:
Grey whales are medium to dark grey in tone, with a mottled appearance due to white patches and scratches, as well as barnacles and orange sea lice living on their skin. Greys have no dorsal fin, but a series of vertebral bumps or "knuckles" along their lower back. Adult male greys are about 14m long, females usually being a bit longer (for reference, a school bus is about 12m long). A fully grown grey weighs in at between 27,200 and 36,300 kg (almost twice as heavy as a fully loaded school bus).
While migrating, greys swim at speeds of 4.8 to 9.6 km per hour. They usually take 2-3 breaths over 15-30 seconds, then show their tail before remaining underwater for 3-5 minutes. This breathing pattern may vary depending on their behaviour (travelling, sleeping, feeding, etc).
A Grey Whale’s Yearly Calendar:
- January-February – Whales spend the winter in the warm waters off Baja California, Mexico.
- March-April-May – They then swim north, hugging the west coast of North America.
- June-July-August-September-October - In the Bering and Chukchi Seas, the whales spend the summer feeding. (To the delight of Vancouver Island whale watchers, some greys stop to eat at this latitude instead of continuing north with the rest of the population.)
- November-December –Greys then swim back down to Baja, usually faster and further offshore than during the northward leg of the migration.
- In total, the 16,000 to 22,500 km round trip (depending on how far north they go) is one of the longest migrations of any mammal.
Why migrate in the first place?
The whales need the warm waters of Baja: calves are born with hardly any insulating blubber and cannot survive in cold water. However, grey whale food (small crustaceans and tube worms) live in cold, nutrient-rich waters, so the whales must swim north to cooler waters to feed. Grey whales end up fasting for several months of the year, relying on fat reserves to power their journey from their feeding grounds to Baja for the winter and back.
A Two-Year Birthing Cycle:
Once a female reaches sexual maturity at 5 to 11 years of age, she mates with a mature male while in Baja during the winter. The pregnant female then makes one full trip to the feeding grounds and back, returning again to the warm, sheltered lagoons of Baja to give birth to a single calf 12 to 13 months later. Her newborn calf is about 4.5m long, weighs 500-680 kg, and can gain 25 - 90 kg a day while nursing on the mother’s rich, fatty milk. The newborn calf and mother linger in Baja until the calf has enough blubber insulation to survive the cold water, then together they follow the migration north to the feeding grounds. (Mothers and calves travel together in pairs, but greys do not maintain larger family groups like some other types of whales do). The calf will nurse for 7 to 8 months, at which time the calf is weaned and the pair returns to Baja, where the female is able to mate again the following January.
Grey whales are mainly bottom-feeders. A grey whale takes several breaths, then dives steeply down, turns on its side, and takes a mouthful of sediment from an area of shallow sea floor. It then uses its tongue to push the water and sediments out past its baleen. The baleen fringe is much like a row of flexible, fine-toothed combs hanging from the roof of the whale's mouth that traps small crustaceans ("amphipods") and tube worms, which the whale then licks off and swallows. Grey whales will sometimes also sieve herring row and porcelain crab larvae from higher in the water column. An adult grey may consume between 400 and 1000kg of food every day during the feeding months as it replenishes its blubber layer.
Grey Whale History:
There are approximately 20,000 grey whales in the Eastern North Pacific Grey Whale population that migrates past our coastline (current estimates range between 17,000 to 26,000 individuals). There is also a very small group of about 130 Western North Pacific Grey Whales that live off the east coast of Asia, and a third population of now extinct grey whales once lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean.
The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations people once hunted and scavenged grey whales off the coast of Vancouver Island. Hunting the massive animals using handcrafted harpoons thrown from cedar canoes took incredible bravery, skill, and planning.
Our Eastern North Pacific Grey Whale population has been commercially hunted close to extinction twice over the past few hundred years, but greys have been fully protected by the International Whaling Commission since 1947, and the population has recovered significantly since then.
http://www.acsonline.org/factpack/graywhl.htm (American Cetacean Society)
http://cms.iucn.org/wgwap/ (International Union for Conservation of Nature)