The Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is a medium-sized whale, reaching up to 50 feet in length, with the females usually being larger than the males. They are grayish blue with many white patches consisting of barnacles and lice that have attached themselves to the whales. They have no dorsal (back) fin; instead they have a low hump and a series of six to twelve knuckles or bumps. Gray whales are considered baleen whales (filter feeders), with approximately 300 plates of cream-colored baleen hanging from their upper jaw to help filter sea critters from the bottom of the sea floor. Two to five throat creases allow their throats to expand during feeding. Gray whales feed by sucking in large amounts of water and filtering out bottom-dwelling animals, mostly amphipods, which are related to shrimp.
Today, Gray whales are found only in the Pacific Ocean, with a population of approximately 26,000. This species has one of the longest migrations of any mammal spanning up to 10,000 miles. During the summer, they live in the Arctic where food is abundant. As fall approaches, there is less sunlight and food, and the water turns cold. This is when the whales travel to Baja California or Mexico where they enter lagoons to give birth and mate. Female gray whales usually give birth every two to three years, and their pregnancies last twelve months. Newborn calves average 16 feet in length and weigh about 1,500 pounds. Calves nurse on milk and are weaned at about eight months, after they have journeyed with their mothers back to the northern feeding grounds.
Gray whales can be seen passing by Point Reyes in December - January during their southern migration, and again in March - July on their northern journey. Since gray whales migrate relatively close to shore (especially on the northern migration past Point Reyes), whalewatching is a very popular activity for visitors visiting the Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas. This jutting point of land causes whales to hug the coast as they go by and offers excellent vantage points for watching the migration. Gray whale blows are usually low and puffy. A migrating gray whale has a relatively consistent breathing pattern, generally spouting three to five times every fifteen to thirty seconds before raising its fluke and submerging out of sight for the next three to five minutes, but they can potentially stay submerged for up to 15 minutes or more. During the migration, gray whales travel at a speed of three to six miles per hour and it takes about five to six months for a gray whale to complete its 9,000 mile round-trip migration. Now that the population has recovered, not all gray whales migrate all the way to Alaska, and more are lingering along the Pacific Coast to feed during the summer at places like Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands. Learn more
Best Time to View
December - July (Migration), peaking in mid-January for the southern migration (farther from shore) and mid-March for the northern migration (closer to shore)
Best Place to View
Point Reyes Headlands, including the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Chimney Rock and along the Coast and Tomales Point trails. Winter storms, spring winds and summer fog can make viewing these animals more difficult. Bring binoculars and your patience - it’s worth it.
Become a Winter Wildlife Docent and help promote awareness and protection of northern elephant seals, gray whales, and other marine life by helping visitors view, understand, and appreciate these species. Read docent observations here.
Pacific Gray Whale & Other Whale Resources