Students Ask and Experts Answer


Q. Are gray whales an endangered species?
The gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994. A small number of gray whales are still legally hunted. Grays were hunted to the edge of extinction in the 1850s after the discovery of the calving lagoons, and hunted again in the early 1900s with the introduction of floating whaling factories. The gray whale was given partial protection in 1937 and full protection in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Since that time, the eastern North Pacific gray whale population has made a remarkable recovery. In 1999 the National Marine Laboratory reported 26,600 gray whales. Fluctuations are normal but in spring 2010 the counts past ACS/Los Angeles were the lowest in 27 years. Numbers of babies counted has dropped in recent years too. This does NOT mean that the gray whale POPULATION has dropped to an alarmingly low number. A larger proportion of gray whales may be traveling offshore, beyond the sighting of people counting them. An unusually large number of extended wind events made accurate counts impossible too. Scientists are watching the counts carefully.

Q. Is there just one population of gray whales in the world?
The eastern north Pacific population is the largest surviving population. At one time there was a north Atlantic population, now extinct, possibly the victims of over-hunting. A Korean or western north Pacific stock is now very depleted, also possibly from over-hunting.

Q. What are a gray whales' enemies?
Their natural enemies are sharks and orcas. Their unnatural enemies are ocean pollution, huge fishing nets, and other human activities that harm their food chain or habitat.

Q. How do humans harm gray whales and their habitat?
Humans no longer hunt gray whales in most places. But they may build resorts and crowd the whalet habitat with tourists and they dump waste from cruise ships, which all increase ocean pollution. People may build industries that could harm whale habitat. (An example is a salt production facility that was proposed but defeated in the pristine San Ignacio Lagoon.) Some experts believe that global warming, resulting in part from human activities, may be harming the gray whale's food chain. The U.S. Navy has performed low-frequency sonar testing at sea, which can have harmful effects on whales. Researchers have found that gray whales exposed to high-intensity active sonar stray from their migration routes. Beached whales of other species have been found bleeding around their brains and ears — a tell-tale sign of trauma caused by exposure to intense sound—after encounters with this deadly technology. In one U.S. Navy study, blue whales' vocalizations decreased by half when exposed to even moderate levels of sonar. Found in oceans worldwide, endangered giant blue whales congregate in the krill-rich waters of California's Channel Islands—right on the gray whale migration route.