California State Stuff III

In the last two columns I began reviewing the California State
“things.” We covered the state flower (the California poppy), the
state bird (the California quail), the state trees (coast redwood
and the giant sequoia) and the state animal (grizzly bear). And so
we continue.

What is the California state marine mammal? The northern elephant
seal, the California sea lion, the harbor seal, the sea otter? All
good guesses and all are wrong. The legislators have chosen an
animal that does not even live in our great state, the so-called
California gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus. This animal just
passes us by twice a year during its annual migration. It could
just as easily be called the Siberian gray whale, the Alaska gray
whale, the British Columbia gray whale, the Washington gray whale,
the Oregon gray whale or the Baja gray whale. Nevertheless we claim
it as ours.

I suppose it`s a good choice, everyone loves whales. They are
intelligent, majestic and BIG. And this whale gets extensive press
coverage every year as it migrates past the California coast. The
gray whale is the most commonly seen wild cetacean and it’s mostly
Californians that see it.

I usually see the first gray whales around Thanksgiving. These are
pregnant females waddling 5000 miles south with a near-term fetus.
The moms make it into the shallow lagoons along the west coast of
Baja where they give birth to a 13 foot, one ton bundle of blubber
and joy. These youngster nurse frequently; they drink 50 gallons of
milk a day and gain an incredible four pounds an hour!

I spend a couple of weeks every year leading trips to San Ignacio
Lagoon, the home of the famous “friendly” whales. For reasons not
entirely understood baby gray whales and their moms come up to the
small boats full of whalewatchers. They allow and even seem to
solicit the touch of the humans. The whales may be initially
attracted to the vibrations created by the boat motor and then
enjoy the encounter with fellow mammals. Who knows? Imagine a
rhinoceros coming up to have his horn scratched. It is just as

The next gray whales to pass our coast are females in heat. Guess
who’s accompanying them? The boys. For a while it was thought that
it took three whales to mate, two males and a female. One male
helped his buddy copulate. Pshaww. He wasn’t helping, he was
jostling for position. Researchers now report as many as eight
males waiting to copulate with one female. Gang rape is a better

The last group to head south are the juveniles. These animals
aren’t interested in courtship; they are just along for the ride.
They often lollygag and sometimes don’t even make it all the way to
Baja. These teenagers are the ones that occasionally get lost in
San Francisco Bay. Heading south there will only get them as far as
San Jose.

The newly impregnated females are the first ones to leave the
lagoons and travel back to the northern summer range. They are soon
followed by the adult males and then by the juveniles. The cow/calf
pairs are the very last to leave the breeding lagoons. They often
swim just outside the surf-line, in water so shallow it seems
they’d run aground. Why so close? Mom may be teaching baby the
migration route or, more likely, they are hiding in the kelp to
avoid detection by their primary predator — the killer whale.

By the time the gray whales have returned to the rich feeding
grounds of the Arctic and Bering Sea they have gone without eating
for over five months and lost about one third their body weight.
They have traveled over 10,000 miles, the longest mammal migration
on the planet.

Much of this data was gathered in the mid-1960’s. Scientists got
permission to “collect” 316 gray whales between Half Moon Bay and
Pt. Reyes. Nowadays there is no way the public would allow the
killing of our state marine mammal for scientific research or for
any reason…….. times change.



Posted on

August 22, 2009