Gray Whales Revealed

Discover gray whales in the isolated San Ignacio lagoon

Full breach

Full breach

James Michael Dorsey

Mothers are clearly proud of their handiwork and will bring a baby up to us on her back to show it off. There are many theories for this behavior, the most common being simply that over centuries the whales have learned they are safe here. After more than a decade as a marine naturalist, that is what I believe. I spend about six hours a day on the water with these animals and know many by sight. (They are easily identifiable from their coloring, which ranges from black to light gray, with mottled tones in between, and unique scarring, mostly from propeller hits and occasional orca bites.)

I have often had a “friendly” follow me throughout the day, covering miles, and then return the next morning to seek my company. This friendliness sometimes gets them hit by propellers, but their thick coating of blubber protects them, and unless the cut is very deep, they do not seem to feel it.

Pacific gray whale mating is a common sight and one of the most unusual events in the natural world. Several amorous young males will line up to await their turn with the female in estrus, who will couple with as many as two dozen suitors in a day. Each one ejaculates hundreds of gallons of semen, washing out the efforts of its predecessor.

It is not uncommon to see several juvenile males all waving their six foot organs in the air, prehensile, bright pink, and weighing hundreds of pounds, but not necessarily trying to mate. Like most red blooded young males, they are simply playing a game of mine is bigger than yours.

After a month in the lagoon, the young whales may have gained as much as 7,000 pounds and are ready to begin the long swim north to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. If a youngster survives to adulthood, he or she may live sixty to eighty years, reaching sexual maturity at about seven years.

Fossilized remains suggest the ancestors of the Pacific gray whale walked the Earth on four legs about six million years ago, and today’s whales still have a vestigial pelvic bone. Both humans and the whales are warm-blooded mammals that give live birth and nurse their young. We both have hair and breathe air. In the womb, a human fetus has weblike hands that resemble flippers, while a whale fetus has individual fingerlike digits. In its pectoral fins a whale has each and every bone that a human has from shoulder to fingertips.

Only two creatures on Earth are born with a soft spot of the top of the skull to allow for brain growth: humans and whales.

Gray whales have occupied this Earth far longer than we have, and even though they are still hunted for food, they come to us in friendship.

As one who knows them firsthand, I hope they will be patient with us, until we reach the point of being able to communicate—and finally learn which species is more civilized.

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