Prior to protection measures in the last 60 years, gray whale population numbers were critically low due to over-harvesting. These large sea mammals usually measure between 50 and 60 feet from head to fin, and weigh over 30 tons. They are a mottled dark gray, a result of the barnacles, or parasites, that attach themselves and eventually fall off.
En route to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and other northern waters, gray whales often navigate the coastal waters of the Olympic Peninsula. Some even enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca and stay to feed for days or weeks. They can be seen feeding off the coast in late spring and summer, or feeding on bottom sediments at the mouths of the Hoh and Quillayute rivers in the summer.
Typically, gray whales feed by scooping up bottom sediments, and filtering out the crustaceans from the sand and other debris with their baleen. They are also known to feed among kelp beds along the coast.
Role in the Ecosystem: Gray whales feed on the bottom of the ocean, stirring up clouds of mud and sediment. These clouds contain important nutrients that will then be stirred up and more accessible to other feeding life. It will also stir up larger creatures such as crabs that may rise high enough for predators such as birds to reach. Their numbers have been in decline since a peak in 1998. As one of the main migrating whale species off the Olympic Peninsula, they are a sought-after sight along the rocky coasts. Without them, the entire ocean dynamic may change.
Fun Fact: Gray whales give birth, after a 11- to 12-month gestation period, to a baby that weighs approximately 1,100 to 1,500 pounds, or 500 to 680 kg.