A group of lucky whale watchers on a recent cruise off the California coast had a once-in-a-lifetime experience witnessing the birth of a gray whale calf. The mother and calf shared intimate moments together while boats full of stunned whale watchers bobbed nearby.
The sighting took place on January 2nd, just a few miles off the coast of Dana Point in Orange County. The marine tour group spotted a gray whale estimated to be around 40 to 50 feet in length and suspected that it was migrating along a back-and-forth route between its Mexican breeding grounds and the Arctic’s cold, nutrient-rich waters.
As they approached, the whale began acting erratically, and the tour operators noticed a small pool of blood near the mammal. Concerned onlookers feared the whale was under attack but were thrilled to see a tiny calf emerge and take its first breath.
The newborn calf immediately began bonding with its mother, and she brought the calf over to the boats to show off her offspring and say hello. Gray whales typically give birth in protected lagoon waters in Baja California, Mexico, where predators are less likely to target the calves or expose them to frigid water temperatures.
However, there are times when the calves just won’t wait and are born during the migration. Gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations along the U.S. west coast, with mothers traveling from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska to the warmer waters in Baja California. The calf’s survival is critical, given that gray whale populations in the North Pacific are declining.
In 2022, populations were estimated at 16,650, down from 27,000 just six years earlier, partly due to strandings caused by an unusual mortality event. The mother and calf shared intimate moments of contact, strengthening their bond. These moments also help protect the calf, whose soft tail typically takes a day to stiffen up, as the mother supports and encourages the calf to take breaths. Despite the dangers, the hope is that the calf will survive in these open waters and bolster declining gray whale populations.