California is popular the world over for its diverse geography and population. It is recognized as the 31st state of the United States, admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850. This third-largest U.S. state flaunts a geography that spans across the Pacific coast to the Sierra Nevada, and the Mojave desert to the dense Redwood-Douglas fir forests. These features not only make the state one of the world's most agriculturally productive regions, but also home to the beautiful Gray Whale.
Understanding the Gray Whale
California flaunts the Gray Whale as the 'State Mammal'. Its unique characteristic is its annual movement to and from feeding and breeding grounds. The beautiful creature reaches a length of more than 16 meters on an average, and weighs more than 35 tons. Known to live up to approximately 60 years, they are also referred to as the 'Devil Fish', for fighting back fiercely when hunted. The other widely used names for this marine marvel include 'Desert Whale', 'Gray Back', 'Mussel Digger', and 'Rip Sack'.
The Gray Whale is unique in being the only species on record in the whale genus Eschrichtius. This uniqueness also makes it the only genus in the family Eschrichtiidae. This whale is believed to be a descendant of the 'filter-feeding whales' and its descendants dates all the way back to over 30 million years ago! Its extensive distribution in the North Pacific easily makes California its preferred home. The Gray Whale is called so because of its dark slate-gray color. Its skin flaunts varied gray-white patterns and parasite-scars.
It has approximately five shallow furrows on the underside of the neck or throat region, and lacks a dorsal fin. This 'lack' is made up for by the multiple dorsal 'knuckles'. Its population in and around California is known to comprise approximately 22,000 individuals, who extensively span the waters between Alaska and Baja, California. The mammals travel in small groups for both, breeding and feeding. The movement between breeding and feeding ground is almost a speed of 5 km/h, the longest on record.
The giant mammals attract parasites such as whale lice and barnacles as they migrate. These parasites thrive off whale skin and damaged tissue, and also feed on scraps of plankton and other food remnants. The movement of the mammals, in and out of the water, also called breaching, helps them dislodge some of these skin parasites. While migrating, it is observed to follow a very predictable breathing pattern. It blows approximately 5 times and raises its flukes before submerging its whole weight for the next 10 - 15 minutes.
Their breeding behavior is very complex, involving the participation of three or more members. With a gestation period of approximately a year, females calve every alternate year. The calf is born tail first. The young one measures approximately 4 meters at birth, and feeds on benthic crustaceans acquired from the sea floor. They travel to California each year, covering a coast-line journey of nearly 12,500 miles, which they cover between October and mid-December. This species are known to protect the pregnant mothers and newborns in specially identified calving lagoons.
When migrating for breeding, the adult males, pregnant females and juveniles leave first. They are followed by older females and the calves. The mammal builds up the reservoir of blubber and fat to help it survive harsh winter conditions. These enigmatic marine mammals were previously hunted for their meat and oil. Humans and Orca or killer whales are their only known predators. These mammals are now protected from commercial whaling or hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and are no longer hunted.