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History of Gray Whales & Where They Are Now

Gray whales are fascinating creatures to watch. They belong to the whale class that have no teeth, baleen whales. They eat by using baleen, a fringed plate that lines the jaw and captures prey in the mouth while water is filtered out. The majority of feeding takes place after they migrate to their summer grounds in Alaska between May and September. Gray whale adults seldom feed while in and around their breeding lagoons in Baja California.

The gray whale lives up to its reputation of a fighter against the forces that would bring about its extinction. The species has fought its way back from the brink of extinction twice throughout human history. Gray whales have even been commercially hunted, reducing their numbers to just a few hundred.

In the late 19th century, gray whale breeding grounds were discovered by humans, leading to whaling ships killing a large percentage of the population. The major drop in population led to an unprofitable outcome to hunting gray whales, so they were left to be and were able to regrow their population size. But, yet again, gray whales became threatened in the early 1900s when the invention of factory ships came to be. These ships processed whales aboard the vessels, allowing for rigorous hunting on the gray whales to begin again. Their population dropped dramatically to around fewer than 2,000 individual whales. In 1946, protection for the whales was brought to light with an international agreement to stop hunting these majestic sea mammals.

So, how many gray whales are left now? Today, the population has expanded to 26,000, almost the number it was before modern-day whaling. As an outcome of this population recuperation, the eastern Pacific population of gray whales were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994. However, the western Pacific (Korean) population, which has not recovered at all, remains listed. The position of the western Pacific population remains unknown, but it is thought to be highly endangered and near extinction. Four years after a portion of the gray whale population was removed from the Endangered Species List, the International Whaling Commission restored a treaty made between the United States Government and the Makah Indians constructed in 1855 which gave the native group permission to hunt the gray whale. The settlement granted the Makah the right to kill 20 whales through the year 2004. The Makah took the life of their first whale in May 1999, being free of the prior 70-year ban on gray whale hunting. The controversial revival of this treaty has led to environmentalists calling for no exceptions to the hunting ban despite its cultural significance for the Makah. Environmentalist’s fear of the revival centers around the potential of an increase in hunting among other marine mammals.

Why are Gray Whales Becoming Extinct?

Despite steps taken to save the gray whale, there are several factors that continue to contribute to the downfall of the population. Commercial whaling has continually been the main threat to all large whales, including gray whales, because it is the number one reason why people hunt this species. Over the years, whale products have been included in several products beneficial to the human race; margarine, gelatin, shoe polish, cosmetics, paint, soap, glue, corset frames, lubricant, candle wax, lighting oil, and of course, whale meat. More recently, many whale oil products have been steadily replaced with cheaper petroleum-based substitutes as availability increases.  

Pollution also stands as a major threat to whales around the world. Toxic chemical contaminants in the ocean and in mammals’ food sources may collect in their systems, reducing reproduction and their long life span.

Fortunately, there exists an ongoing effort on behalf of the gray whale population to protect their numbers. In 1994, a whale sanctuary was implemented in Antarctica. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), generated an 11-million square mile protected area in ideal feeding habitat of the Antarctic that is used by numerous baleen whales. However, enforcement of the whaling ban in this space remains an issue, and ongoing endeavors are imperative to make the sanctuary completely effective.