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Alan B. Nichols: Gray Whales

breaching whale

I asked if he'd describe his experience going out in a panga among the gray whales, He nodded and continued: "You know, I'm not a very sentimental person. I don't think we ought to save animals because they're cuddly and pettable. But it's simply an amazing experience having those whales roll over and look you eye to eye. There really is an interspecies contact there. There's an intelligence. And it's undeniable. It's different from any experience I have ever had, and I've been around animals all my life. You sometimes see that kind of meaning and significance in the eye of a dog, occasionally maybe a chimp. But seeing it coming from an animal that huge and so different than us, coming from a whole different universe--it's like two universes touching and finding commonality.

eye of whale

"Eye of the Whale"
Dick Russell

The gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is the monotypic genus in the cetacean family, Eschrichtidae. It is the sole member of that family. The whale’s 10,000-mile annual migration between Mexico and the Arctic is the longest of any mammal on Earth, encompassing extremes in water temperature and serious challenges, including ambushes by pods of orcas, the gray’s fiercest enemy along with humans.

Gray whales have streamlined bodies and long tapered heads and are distinguished from most other whales by the absence of a dorsal fin. Grays are the only cetaceans that feed on the ocean bottom. Their diet consists of amphipods and other benthic invertebrates. Throughout their migration, grays hug the shore, making them easily observable to whale watchers. Their mottled coloring is accentuated by white splotches of barnacles and whale lice which feed on the whale’s dead skins and keep open sores clean. These parasites are harmless to the whales.

Pachico's Story

hi there

A Forgiving Species

The story of the eastern Pacific gray whale is one of remarkable recovery. They were hunted to near extinction, not once but twice. But, as James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, writes, “The story of the gray whale in the eastern North Pacific is one of a tenacious hold on life, a story of a rebounding population after near extinction, and one of the few successes in the conservation of whales.”

Once called “the devil fish” because they put up a ferocious fight against harpooners, gray whales had a menacing reputation long after they were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, protecting them from further predation. For reasons scientists can’t explain, the eastern Pacific gray exhibited a pronounced and sudden change of behavior towards humans beginning in the 1970s.

As we learn from Dick Russell’s award-winning chronicle of gray whales, the fishermen of San Ignacio on the Baja were terrified when they spotted a whale in the water. A 30-ton mother gray, with a flip of her tail, could destroy a small panga in seconds. One day in 1975, a local fisherman named Pachico saw a mother gray coming toward his boat with her young, and instead of attacking him, rubbed her back gently against the boat, as if to say, “I forgive you.” She then nudged her baby toward the boat. When Pachico reached out and touched the whales, it marked a dramatic turning point in man’s relationship with this majestic mammal. From then on, grays were known among the Baja villagers as “the friendly whales.”

To learn more about these remarkable animals,
click on the links at left.

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