Western gray whale

In the deep waters of the North Pacific Ocean resides a gentle giant that is quietly slipping towards extinction despite its importance to the marine ecosystem and consistent conservation efforts.
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© naturepl.com / Mary McDonald / WWF-Canon
The western gray whale, among the largest whales found in the ocean, faces serious threats from the impacts of oil and gas exploration due to the Piltun Astokhskoye oil field lying 16 km away from the Sakhalin Islands in Russia.

These islands are the only feeding grounds of this whale, and increased noise pollution and disturbance is driving them away.

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An iconic species

The gray whale is the only living species of its genus and family Eschrichtiidae, which makes it genetically and evolutionarily distinct from any other species of whales found in the ocean.

It is also unique in its migration patterns. No other mammal, on land or sea, covers as much distance along its migratory route as the gray whale. Western gray whales travel more than 12,000 miles in a round trip between their summer feeding grounds near Sakhalin Islands in Russia to their winter feeding grounds in South China Sea.

It is also the only whale that feeds by straining the sediment on the sea floor, taking large amounts of sediment into its mouth and letting it pass through the baleen so only the bottom dwelling worms, crustaceans and molluscs remain.
 / ©: naturepl.com / David Fleetham / WWF-Canon
Close-up of baleen of gray whale
© naturepl.com / David Fleetham / WWF-Canon

Threats

The gray whale was considered extinct until 1974, when a small population was found close to California. Then began massive conservation efforts to revive the population, banning commercial whaling activities and implementing stringent laws. Slowly, the eastern population stabilized, but the western gray whale still faces a dark future.

The Piltun Astokhskoye oil field lies 16 km off the Sakhalin Islands in the Okhotsk Sea, the only feeding grounds of the western gray whale. These shallow waters are the only habitat of this whale which support its unique feeding style, and allows mothers to teach their calves how to feed in this way.

The western gray whale arrives in June and stays until November, spending six months consuming up to 2,400 pounds of food per day to fatten up for the winter when it hardly consumes any food.

Despite all conservation efforts, their population has not increased in many years due to the disturbance caused by the oil field, which in turn affects the species ability to feed, communicate, navigate and reproduce.

What you can do

WWF is calling on governments and companies to stop drilling activities in the habitat of the western gray whale. We want to build public support in making our voice heard and create a movement to save this species and other such endangered species which are being directly impacted by fossil fuel extraction.

Pledge your support to the Seize Your Power campaign, and let governments and oil companies know, you do not want energy at the cost of losing this precious and unique species.

Impact of oil drilling

Oil exploration, including geophysical seismic testing, pipe laying and drilling operations are extremely noisy activities. Since whales rely on sound as their primary sense such high levels of noise pollution stress them out. This can lead to hearing damage and in some cases complete abandoning of the feeding grounds.

In recent years, scientists have observed the number of whales coming to feed in this area decreasing, while the numbers feeding in deep waters are increasing. This is resulting in under nourished calves as they can no longer learn to feed properly from the mother.

Reports also indicate that whales coming to feed in Sakhalin Islands appear weaker due to disturbed feeding habits, leading to reduced reproduction. Oil extraction also increases risks of collision with vessels and exposure to oil spills.

Until the interference in the feeding grounds of this species is drastically reduced, the western gray whale has a slim chance of survival.
 / ©: WWF International 2013
Three threats to the western gray whale
© WWF International 2013

Saving the last 130

WWF is committed to saving the last remaining 130 western gray whales by:

  • Documenting and protecting critical feeding and breeding areas and migration routes of the whales
  • Establishing whale sanctuaries, helping to move shipping lanes and curtail seismic surveys that disrupt feeding grounds
  • Increasing awareness of the need for whale conservation at national, regional and international levels
  • Involving local communities in economic opportunities from whale conservation initiatives
 / ©: naturepl.com / Todd Pusser / WWF-Canon
Gray whale
© naturepl.com / Todd Pusser / WWF-Canon
Western gray whale at risk rel=
Western gray whale at risk
© WWF

130

  • Less than 130 western gray whales remain in the world with only 25 breeding females.

12,000

  • Western gray whales make a round trip of more than 12,000 miles between summer and winter feeding grounds every year

2,400

  • The western gray whale consumes up to 2,400 pounds of food per day for six months of the year, fattening up for winter.

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