Gray Whale

by | May 19, 2016

Introducing the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale


The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is one of the largest and oldest mammals on earth. In the family of baleen whales, it is the last of its species, descending from the Eschrichtiidae, a family of filter-feeding whales that originated during the Oligocene over 30 million years ago. Baleen whales have long, plastic-like teeth which trap food in the whale’s mouth, allowing water to filter out. For thousands of years, hunters killed the gray whale and used its flesh and bone for meat, oil, and tools. Baleen in particular was considered useful for many commodity purposes, and up until the rise of the plastics and petroleum industry, baleen was commonly used to make products like combs. Among indigenous peoples today, baleen whale oil is still used for subsistence purposes, like making soap, and lighting lamps.

When the early European settlers arrived in the new world, gray whales were quickly observed to be a rich and plentiful source of oil. As Nancy Shoemaker (2005) describes in Whale Meat in American History, the practice of mass whaling soon reached industrial proportions, entrenching colonial settlements along the coastlines of America, providing the foundations for new trans-Atlantic capitalist enterprise. As Shoemaker states:

“All the usual suspects necessary for a coherent narrative about the global rise of capitalism are present in whaling history, making the history of whale hunting look, at first, like just another example of how European capitalism reached out and brought the Americas, Asia, and Africa into its net, all the while turning raw resources into market commodities” (271).

Shoemaker further describes how, in addition to whale oil, in the 1920s, and again in the 1950s, entrepreneurs – hoping to further capitalize on the whaling industry – marketed whale meat to American consumers, without success (276-282). Meanwhile, the American whale hunt increased in scale, driving the gray whale to near-extinction, until oil sourced from the ground superseded whale oil in industrial manufacturing (270).

In 1946, whaling activities became regulated as the League of Nations formed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to conserve whales for industrial resource production. This international regulatory body established a quota system for member nations, with prohibitions against whales classified as endangered (Shoemaker 282). Following the start of the environmental movement and “save-the-whales” campaigns, in 1972 the United States instituted the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which legislated the federal government’s protection of whales and other marine mammals (283). Shoemaker states: “Petroleum and the invention of plastic made the American need for whale oil and whalebone obsolete and meant that, when an environmental conscience intent on saving whales emerged in the 1970s, Americans could embrace this particular cause without suffering any loss” (272). Ten years later, the IWC revised its policies from conservation to preservation with a 1982 moratorium on whale hunting; the moratorium included exceptions for indigenous peoples who traditionally rely upon whale meat for subsistence practices (283). Today, the whale hunt continues to be a traditional subsistence activity of the Northwest Coast natives and Inuit, with whales figuring prominently in indigenous customs, diet, crafts, and folklore.

With the neoliberal turn and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, new trade regulations opened up new sources of revenue. As borders opened for capitalist ventures between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, remote regions became economically bolstered tourist destinations. Capitalizing on conservation ethics, travel destinations began to widely market whale-watching excursions for tourist entertainment, and gray whales became reconceived as a tourist attraction in their breeding grounds. In Closing the “Great Divide”, Michael Goldman and Rachel A. Schurman (2000) draw from David Harvey’s (1996) Marxist interpretation of the built environment. Summarizing his argument, they state: “nature is so mediated by capitalist structures and practices that there is no other way to think of nature as currently experienced except as a product of capital” (567).

Following the 1982 moratorium, the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population has reached what is estimated to be its original (pre-contact) population of 20,000. Traveling a 16,000 km long migration route, the gray whale crosses geo-political boundaries along the Pacific Coast of North America, reaching Arctic feeding grounds in Alaska and the Beaufort and Bering Seas during April to November, before migrating south to its summer breeding grounds in the lagoons of the Pacific Coast of Baja California, Mexico, between December and April (NOAA Fisheries). Salvadeo et. al. (2015) identify Bahia Magdalena, San Ignacio, and Ojo de Liebre as three key lagoons in Baja where the gray whales breed in particular (2). These lagoons are popular ecotourism sites for southern whale watching tours, as multiple user-generated videos uploaded to YouTube demonstrate (see map: Pacific Migration and Interspecies Connections).


For a further analysis of the political ecology of the gray whale, and the relationship between NAFTA and the making and unmaking of borders, please see NAFTA and the Political Ecology of the Gray Whale (next page).


Works Cited:

Michael Goldman and Rachel A. Schurman (2000) Closing the “Great Divide”

Salvadeo et. al. (2015)

Nancy Shoemaker (2005) Whale Meat in American History


"Gray Whale Tale Fin" by Karen (Flickr) Pacific gray whales off the San Diego coast
"Gray Whale Breaching" by Eric Neitzel (Flickr), San Diego

The Gray Whale

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus)