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The Grey Whale is a medium to large-sized baleen whale (baleen is a flexible material found in long, thin plates along the jaw which acts to filter small food particles rather than using regular teeth). It has a streamlined body and narrow, tapered head. Its skin is dark grey and mottled, often covered with patches of barnacles and crustaceans. This whale does not have a dorsal fin but has a low hump and a series of seven to fifteen “knuckles” along its dorsal ridge. Two to four grooves on the underside of the throat allow the whale to extend its throat so it can feed by scooping up bottom sediment and straining it through its baleen.

Weight: 22 to 38 t (24 to 42 tons). Length: Females, 12 to 15 m (39 to 50 ft); Males, 11 to 14 m (36 to 46 ft).

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In spring, Grey Whales migrate north from Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in northern Alaska, Russia and the southern Beaufort sea. This annual migration is over 16,000 km round trip.

Range map information

 In late winter of alternating years, female Grey Whales give birth to a single calf on their calving grounds in Mexico.  Grey Whales can live up to 70 years of age.

Grey Whales live in shallow ocean water (less than 60 m deep) close to shore, over mud or sand bottoms. Grey Whales feed mainly on shrimp-like animals (amphipod crustaceans). They use their baleen plates like a strainer to filter sediment and locate their prey. They scoop up mouthfuls of sediment and allow it to sift through the spaces between the baleen, with only the prey left behind in their mouths. Because Grey Whales re-circulate nutrients from bottom sediments through the water column while feeding, they are an important species in arctic marine ecosystems.

Grey Whale populations were severely reduced by commercial whaling in the 1800s and early 1900s, but since the 1950s they have recovered considerably under international protection. Grey Whales are still susceptible to human activities especially while they spend the winter on their calving grounds.

Potential threats in the NWT include loss of habitat due to industrial development (such as oil and gas) and associated noise. Collisions with ships are a possibility, but likelihood of collisions is low in the western Arctic at the present time.

Years with extended ice cover on summer feeding grounds may limit ocean productivity and, therefore, feeding opportunities. This may become less of an issue with climate change.

When COSEWIC assessed Grey Whale in 2004, the NWT’s whales were grouped with other whales from the northern Pacific and western Arctic oceans and assessed as a species of Special Concern. Grey Whale was listed as Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2005. In 2017, COSEWIC assessed the large Northern Pacific Migratory population of Grey Whales (which includes the NWT) separately from smaller populations in British Columbia. It was assessed as Not at Risk.

Grey Whales are protected from commercial whaling under international agreements. International trade in Grey Whale products is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In Canadian waters, the Fisheries Act and Marine Mammal Regulations make it illegal to hunt or disturb whales except for subsistence use.

A national management plan for Grey Whale is available on the federal Species at Risk Public Registry.