The grey whale undergoes one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling up to 20,000 km round trip along the west coast from Mexico towards their summer feeding grounds in northern Alaska, Russia and Canada. The population passes along the BC coastline and some whales repeatedly spend the entire summer feeding in British Columbia. These gentle giants grow up to 14 metres in length – longer than a city bus! They weigh up to 30,000 kg and much of their mottled grey skin is covered in barnacles and whale lice. Grey whales are the only baleen whale that regularly feeds on bottom dwelling animals. The main component of their diet is small, shrimp-like animals called amphipods that live on muddy ocean floors. To feed, a whale dives to the bottom, rolls on its side and draws bottom sediments and water into its mouth. As it closes its mouth, water and sediments are expelled through the baleen plates, which trap the food on the inside near the tongue to be swallowed. Mating and calving both occur primarily in the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. Courtship and mating behavior are complex and frequently involve 3 or more whales of mixed sexes. Females bear a single calf at intervals of two years or more and gestation is up to 13 months.

The indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth name for the species is ‘mauk.’ Historically the coastal First Nations in British Columbia hunted the whales for their meat, bone and oil. Whaling featured prominently in spiritual, ceremonial and artistic traditions of the coastal people. Whales were viewed as sacred gifts providing the First Nations people with food, status, wealth and culture. The success of a whale hunter depended on his spiritual preparation, which required months of prayer, bathing and fasting. The honor of hunting whales was past down within families with ownership of the secret rituals and songs. The primary predators of grey whales are transient killer whales, which may attack grey whale calves along their migration route. In the 18th and 19th centuries commercial whaling by the European, Japanese and North American whalers severely reduced the Pacific Grey whale population to critically low levels of less than 2,000 animals. While whaling no longer threatens these whales, human activities remain an important factor affecting grey whales and their habits. Toxic spills, acute noise and fossil fuel exploration can cause loss and deterioration of breeding and feeding habits. In addition, collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear can result in mortality. The latest count shows the population of grey whales at 20,000 animals. The population is likely to remain around this number, unless there is a change in the ocean ecosystem.

Tofino is one of the best locations in the world to view these beautiful cetaceans. Whale watching tours provide a unique opportunity for people to appreciate the magnificence of whales in their natural habitat, enhance conservation education and increase knowledge of the threats that face these gentle giants. From March to October you can view grey whales from land, air and boat in the Clayoquot Sound area. Migrating grey whales have a predictable breathing pattern. A whale will blow 3 to 5 times, raise its flukes, and then submerge for 3 to 5 minutes. The whale can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes. For a closer look at these whales you can book a tour with many of the whale watching tour companies in Tofino. Guidelines help ensure that these boats do not interrupt or disturb these migrating and feeding whales. These tours also offer the opportunity to see grey whales, humpback whales, killer whales, sealions, seabirds, otters and so much more.

The grey whale migration also kicks off the annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival held in March. This west coast festival focuses on the arrival of grey whales, marine education and creates awareness about our pristine eco-system. Held during spring break, families and visitors have also been migrating back to the west coast to attend the events in Tofino and Ucluelet. The festival creates awareness of marine eco-systems, brings the communities together and offers kids on spring break an opportunity to learn and have fun. For more information on the festival and its events please go to www.pacificrimwhalefestival.com.

By Jennifer Steven