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Endangered Species

 Gray Whale Eschrichtius robustus

Over two decades ago, the West Coast Whale Research (now Pacific WildLife Foundation) pioneered studies of the gray whales off Vancouver Island, and thanks to donor support the studies continue.

The coastal dwelling gray whale is the most often encountered whale on the Pacific Coast of North America and the object of a flourishing whale-watching industry. Gray whales are distinctive from other whales by the combination of medium size (for a whale: 10-15m), mottled gray skin pigmentation, absence of a dorsal fin, and propensity to come very close to shore.

The eastern Pacific population, sometimes referred to as the California stock, calves off the coast of Baja California and most individuals spend the summer feeding in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Small numbers spend the summer feeding off southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. The eastern Pacific population is thought to be about 20,000 individuals, down somewhat from estimates of few years ago of up to 26.000.

Some scientists suggest the population has reached its capacity, noting that large numbers of strandings in recent years may have been the result of starvation. The average of 41 stranded gray whales reported between 1995 and 1998, was followed by a large increase to 283 strandings in 1999 and 368 in 2000. However, the number of strandings fell to 21 in 2001 and 26 in 2002. Researchers concluded that no clear explanation could be derived for the stranded whales but that a common, wide ranging factor was likely involved and that starvation was most likely (Gulland et al 2005).

The western Pacific gray whale population sometimes referred to as the Korean stock, is composed of just 100 animals and is considered critically endangered.  Western gray whales spend the summer feeding near Sakhalin Island. Their breeding ground is unknown but suspected to be in the waters off southern China.


Baird, R.W., P.J. Stacey, D.A. Duffus and K.M. Langelier. 2002. An evaluation of gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) mortality incidental to fishing operations in British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 4:289-296.

Bowen, W. D. and D. B. Siniff. 1999. Distribution, population biology and feeding ecology of marine mammals. Pp. 423-484 in Reynolds, J. E., III and S. A. Rommel (eds.). Biology of marine mammals.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

Breiwick, J. W. 1999. Gray whale abundance estimates, Pp. 62 in D. J. Rugh, M. M. Muto, S. E. Moore and D. P. DeMaster. Status review of the eastern north pacific stock of gray whales. US Department of Commerce. NOAA Tech Rep. Memo NMFS-AFSC-103, Washington, D.C.

Darling, J.D. 1984. Gray whales off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Pp. 276 287 in The Gray Whale.  M. L. Jones, S. Swartz and S. Leatherwood (eds.). Academic Press, New York, NY.

Darling, J.D., Keogh, K.E., and T.E. Steeves. 1998. Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) habitat utilization and prey species off Vancouver Island, B.C. Marine Mammal Science 14, 692-720.

Gulland, F.M.D. and others. 2005. Eastern North Pacific gray whale (Eschrictius robustus) unusual mortality event, 1999-2000. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-150.

Rice, D. W. and A. A. Wolman. 1971. The life history and ecology of the gray whale Eschrichtius robustus. American Society of Mammalogists, Special Publication 3, 142 p.

Wartzok, D. and D. R. Ketten. 1999. Marine mammals sensory systems. Pp. 117-175 in Reynolds, J. E., III and S. A. Rommel (eds.). Biology of marine mammals.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

Wilson, D. E. and S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Gray Whale Identification Guide

Gray Whale Distribution Map

Gray Whale Photos





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