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Gray Whale Conservation: How We Can Protect Gray Whales

a whale jumping out of the water
a whale jumping out of the water

Gray whales are some of the biggest visitors to the San Diego area in the winter months. Gray whales begin to arrive in December as they make their way south to the lagoons of Mexico. These calm, warm, shallow lagoons offer protection to pregnant mothers who are ready to give birth. Males also swim through San Diego on their way to Mexico as they search for warmer waters and females that are ready to mingle. By January and February, the population of gray whales is booming in San Diego. Approximately 26,000 gray whales swim south every single year from Alaska all the way down to Mexico, passing through San Diego each way. It takes them about 55 days to travel 5,000 miles. Although the gray whale population is fairly stable, there are still a lot of threats to their livelihood. Thankfully, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The whale watching community in San Diego is always advocating for these magnificent animals.

Biggest Gray Whale Threats

As gray whales are some of the largest mammals, they do not have many natural predators. Killer whales do attack gray whale calves, but the biggest threat to gray whales are humans. Accidental ship strikes kill hundreds of whales worldwide. In San Francisco alone, at least 80 whales are killed every year by accidental ship strike. Since they swim close to shore, Gray whales are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear. There are many concerns about oil and gas exploration off the coasts and how that will impact the gray whales. Military sonar exercises cause both damage and death to whales. They have been seen to swim away hundreds of miles to avoid sonar, rapidly changing their depth causing bleeding from the ears and eyes, and even beach themselves. Behavioral changes and mass strandings have all been seen after such exercises. Just to put it in perspective, the loudest rock band only plays at 130 decibels. Military sonar systems top out at 235 decibels, sending waves of sound that travel for hundreds of miles underwater. Some systems have been seen to travel 300 miles and retain 140 decibel intensity. It’s no wonder that these animals try everything to get away from this loud sound.

Protected Status

Gray whales are legally protected from commercial whaling, but some Aboriginal communities are allowed to make limited catches. The population of gray whales in the Pacific region are increasing, but there are some species of gray whales that are still very small. Whales are the top of the food chain in the ocean, so they play an important part in the marine environment. You may not think about it, but whale poop is also critical for the ecosystem as it fertilizes the ocean with essential nutrients needed for phytoplankton to bloom. 

How to Help  

Whale watching is a popular attraction in the San Diego area. It’s one way that people learn more about whales and marine wildlife to appreciate why conservation is so important. The whale watching community in San Diego works with NOAA and the Navy, gathering data on whale sightings. We put in the coordinates and take a picture of every whale we see and we input into an app called “Whale Alert.” This way, both NOAA and the Navy can see the location of the whales in real time. By sailing with us, we are able to gather this daily research that would not be otherwise available for these organizations. We encourage people to be responsible when viewing nature. We always keep a safe distance away from the whales. If they become particularly curious about our boat, we turn off our engines and let them explore our vessel. 

Pick Up Your Trash

Trash in the ocean impacts the entire marine community, from little crustaceans to dolphins and whales. Plastic is a huge problem as krill will eat plastic and it will be absorbed in their bodies. Anything that eats krill ends up eating plastic as well. Toxins associated with plastic cause endocrine problems and reduce reproduction as well.  When you visit the beach, make sure to pick up all your belongings and trash. Participate in a trash pickup one weekend to see why that is so important.

Reduce Your Speed on the Water

When you’re on the water, pay attention to where you’re going so you don’t collide with wildlife. Always keep a lookout on the bow. Again, keep your distance from animals, preferably 100 yards or more. Reduce your speed to 10 knots or less. If a whale comes up really close to your boat, turn your engines off immediately and drift in the water so that you don’t injure the whale with your propellers. Whale collisions not only hurt the whale, they can also be devastating to your boat. 

Talk to Legislators

One thing you can do to protect the whale’s habitat is to talk to lawmakers about environmental standards for projects that use ocean resources. Ask your legislators to push for stricter control over oil and gas exploration in the ocean.

Be Eco-Conscious  

Whale watching is a great tourist attraction in San Diego. The key to enjoying nature is to be conscious of your activities. Take a boat that is environmentally responsible. Make sure the companies you do business with on the water are using best practices for sustainability. Are the restaurants using sustainable fish instead of depleting the population of endangered species? While you may never eat gray whales, you could be eating something that is part of their food chain.

Gray whales are impressive animals. Whale watching can give you a new perspective on their habitat and needs. Next Level Sailing is eco-friendly and eco-conscious as part of their business practices. Reserve your whale watching tour.

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