Baby Gray Whale Pays a Visit

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 28, 2024

A baby gray whale has spent a few weeks in the Morro Bay harbor to the delight of locals and visitors.Photo By Dronesey

For much of the past couple of weeks, Morro Bay residents and visitors have been enchanted by a baby gray whale that wandered into the harbor and seemingly couldn’t find its way back out.

Gray whales are on the northern leg of their annual 10,000-mile round-trip migration from Alaskan waters where they spend the summers to the warm waters of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez, where they winter and give birth.

The migration is among the longest taken annually by any mammal species.

This little one was estimated at about 20-feet long by people who posted online about their up close encounters with the whale. 

According to news reports the whale’s presence in the bay was reported to authorities — the Marine Mammal Center, State Fish & Wildlife, Coast Guard, and of course the City Harbor Department, which has been fielding countless calls from a concerned and curious public.

They’ve been keeping tabs on the little one as well as watching the interactions kayakers and other boaters are having with it. The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whales and makes it a federal crime to approach too close or to harass them. 

In the photos here, people on the Sandspit at low tide were able to get within mere yards of the whale, as it swam back and forth along the Sandspit. 

And while these folks seem exceedingly close, they are standing on land and not in the water with it, so they could hardly be accused of harassment.

Baby gray whales like this youngling are only a few months old when they embark to swim the roughly 5,000 miles from Baja to Alaska; and during their most vulnerable time, when new to the world and unaware of all the dangers of modern life for these ancient creatures.

Among the most common man-caused hazards are boat strikes, as gray whales swim through some of the busiest waters anywhere. 

They also face being hunted by pods of orcas. And while local waters don’t have resident pods of killer whales, there are pods found to the north in Monterey Bay and to the south in the Santa Barbara Channel. The Santa Barbara Channel pod is occasionally spotted in local waters, as they roam far to the north following the migrating gray whales.

Several years ago, that Santa Barbara Channel pod was spotted in Estero Bay, off Morro Rock, hunting a baby gray whale and its mother. 

The orcas repeatedly attacked in formation, trying to drive the pair apart. Eventually they separated the calf and drowned it. They then feasted on the baby whale’s carcass, biting the head off and eating the giant tongue — a hundreds of pound filet mignon from the sea.

When the carcass washed up on the beach north of Morro Rock, its ravaged body had raking bite marks from the missing head to the tips of its tail, a most gruesome sight indeed. The City buried the carcass under the beach sand.

If readers are worried about food for this little whale, according to NOAA’s website on gray whales, “They are primarily bottom feeders that consume a wide range of benthic [sea floor] and epibenthic [above the sea floor] invertebrates, such as amphipods [shrimp]. 

“Gray whales suck sediment and food from the sea floor by rolling on their sides and swimming slowly along, filtering their food through 130 to 180 coarse, baleen plates on each side of their upper jaw. In doing so, they often leave long trails of mud behind them and ‘feeding pits’ on the seafloor.” 

So with a bay full of sand dollars and bay shrimp, especially in the muddy shallows by the Sandspit, food shouldn’t be too big of a problem for the baby whale.

However, on a sad note, there’s little chance of survival for this baby whale if it doesn’t find its mother, or doesn’t connect up with other gray whales, as they migrate past, for Alaska is quite a challenging swim even for adult gray whales.

In the past when baby whales have wandered into the harbor, they’ve usually found their way back out fairly quickly, and on at least one previous occasion, officials chased a baby whale out of the harbor, harassing it with boats and successfully herding it out of the bay to hopefully reunite with its mama and continue the journey to Alaska.

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