Grey Whales Survived Catastrophic Hunt

Posted by Daniel on May 6, 2010

Great excitement over yesterday's sighting of a grey whale in False Creek, and earlier in the week at Squamish, presumably the same animal. Then early this morning it re-appeared in False Creek, paying a visit to Science World.

It is the time of year that grey whales are migrating north up the outer coast to Alaska for a season of feeding. This one probably wandered a bit off course, or perhaps has an inquisitive nature and decided to see what was on the other side Vancouver Island.

Greys have had a very dramatic relationship with humans on the Pacific Coast. Commercial whalers started hunting them in the 1840s down along the Baja Peninsula. The whales pass the winter there, calving in shallow, warm-water lagoons.

Initially they did not seem to repay the effort it took to catch them; their oil and their baleen were considered to be inferior to other species. No whale species remained safe from the hunters for long, however, and in 1845 a pair of whale ships from Connecticut sailed into Magdalena Bay on the west coast of the Baja and killed 32 animals. In an orgy of destruction lasting three decades the population of greys was almost annihilated. A disproportionate number of victims were females and calves with the result that the population collapsed more quickly than other species.

It has been estimated that by the mid-1870s only about 2,000 greys remained out of a pre-hunt population of 20,000+. It was no longer worth the while of hunters to come to the lagoons. The giant factory ships took a few greys after 1914 and in 1937 they were protected by international agreement, though it seemed to many that it was too late, that the species would soon be extinct.

However, once protected, the grey whale bounced back remarkably quickly until today there are as many greys migrating along the coast as there were before the hunt began. The trip they make between the Baja and Alaska, by the way, is the longest migration of any mammal on earth.