On a fall afternoon, a pod of grey whales passes a fishing boat off the coast of Alaska. Grey whales are a bit smaller than humpbacks. Like humpbacks, they are filter feeders, but unlike humpbacks, they don't feed in the water column, instead, grey whales are bottom feeders, scooping sediment from the sandy or muddy sea floor and filtering out crustaceans and other food. Alaska's grey whales are part of a population known as the eastern Pacific stock, and these whales are headed south to their winter calving areas in the Gulf of California and Baja.
Grey whales were almost exterminated in the industrial whaling days. Gray whales were heavily hunted in the 1850s after the discovery of the calving lagoons, and again in the early 1900s with the introduction of floating factories. Hunting ended in 1947 when the gray whale was given full protection by the International Whaling Commission. Since that time the eastern north Pacific gray whale population has made a remarkable recovery and now numbers about 20,000, probably close to the carrying capacity.
Alaska's grey whales spend the summer feeding in shallow waters (usually less than 200 feet deep) in the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas. They begin their southward migration in mid-October, a 5,000 to 7,000 mile trip down the west coast that takes about two and a half months, and they arrive in Baja in December and January.