Saturday, June 8, 2013

Gray Whales and New Jersey

A spyhopping Gray Whale

The North Atlantic Gray whale became extirpated in New Jersey waters back in the whaling industry days of the early 1700s. That means they no longer exist in these waters, but are not extinct because they exist in other locations. They were once found off the coasts of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada as well as on the other side of the Atlantic, along the coast of Europe.

This is the same species that is found along the Pacific coast of the U.S. as well as the northern Pacific coast of Asia. The North Atlantic name indicates its geographic location, not a distinct species. These whales probably were extirpated from Atlantic waters off Europe first and, as the New World was settled, began to disappear from the Atlantic coast of North America.

Gray whales off the Pacific coast of North America were also hunted and were critically endangered in the 20th century, but protective measures have allowed the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific Ocean to rebound. They were removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Species in 1994. But, Gray whales in the western Pacific Ocean, along the coasts of Russia and Korea, remain endangered. Estimates are that this population has no more than 100 individuals remaining.

Like gray whales in the Pacific Ocean, North Atlantic gray whales were primarily a coastal whale. Since they did not travel as far from shore, they became an easy species for whalers.  Whalers also targeted young whales which stay close to the mother. In earlier times, they would migrate between winter breeding and calving grounds in the southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, including NJ, to summer foraging grounds in New England.

Gray whales are benthic filter feeders which means that they will scoop up large mouthfuls of fine sediment and then use the baleen strips within their mouth and their tongue to squeeze out the sand and water from their mouth while trapping small invertebrates inside to feed on.

Gray whales can grow to a length of 50 feet and a weight of 80,000 pounds, with females being slightly larger than males. They are mottled gray in color with small bumps along their back, and no fin. They have a double blowhole. They are often covered by barnacles. Their only natural predators are large sharks and killer whales, which usually target young whales or calves.

Close-up of a Gray Whale's double blow hole and encrusted barnacles.
Photo in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, by Philkon Phil Konstantin

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJune 08, 2013

    Maybe there is still hope for Atlantic gray whales... in May 2010, a gray whale was observed off the coast of Israel, in the Mediterranean Sea. It is unknown how this individual was able to find its way there, thousands of miles from the nearest known population of gray whales. It seems unlikely that North Atlantic gray whales would have gone undetected for hundreds of years, due to their large size, but it is not impossible. It is more likely that this individual made an enormously long voyage, as whales are known to do, and found itself in unknown waters.