Gray whale – how did it end up in Namibian waters?

NICE – Namibian Institute of Culinary Education
May 14, 2013
Paul van Schalkwyk soars over the Namib
May 14, 2013

Text Jana-Mari Smith & Photographs John Paterson

In a surprising and dumbfounding feat, a north pacific gray whale has been laying low off the coast of Namibia for the past two weeks. This is believed to be the first instance of this species of whale to be spotted in the southern hemisphere. 

While it’s origins cannot be confirmed, what is certain is that this whale must have bridged several thousands of kilometres and an ocean or two, to find itself in the cold Atlantic waters bordering the coastal town of Walvis Bay. Tour operators first spotted the ‘mystery’ cetacean on May 4 and later photographic evidence convinced scientists and tour operators that this was indeed a mighty gray whale. 

Photo ©John Paterson

Photo ©John Paterson

According to Simon Elwen from the Namibian Dolphin Project of Namibia, the presence of the mammoth cetacean in our waters could be the first time a gray whale has been spotted in the southern hemisphere opening up tons of questions as to how and why it is here. To date, very few answers exist. 

This past weekend John Paterson of the Albatross Task Force and a member of the Namibian Strandings Network took to the waters around Pelican point and managed to get a few shots of the shy whale. It is estimated that the whale is about 10 metres long, and it is definitely an adult whale. Because it keeps itself covered by the Atlantic waters, it has not yet been determined whether it is a male or female or what it’s approximate age is. Paterson and others say it is only possible to speculate which route the whale took to get to the shores of Namibia. It could have swum the north-west passage or traversed around the southern tip of South America and onwards towards Namibia. But no concrete answers are expected any time soon. 

Photo©John Paterson

Photo©John Paterson

In any case, the presence of the gray whale has caused a ripple of excitement among marine biologists in the area, who are keeping a close eye on the whale. News is travelling far and wide of it’s mystery trip and presence. 

According to Elwen, gray whales are a North Pacific species and have been extinct in the Atlantic for several hundred years – since about 1700. 

Photo ©John Paterson

Photo ©John Paterson

Elwen also added that recent sightings of gray whales have occured in the Mediterranean (both in Turkey and later Spain). In another surprise move, there was an unexpected cross over of a gray whale form the highly endangered Wester Pacific population off Sakhalin Island (Russia) to the coast of California’s more abundant Eastern populations.

Photo ©John Paterson

Photo ©John Paterson

Confirmation that this was indeed a gray whale came after close observations of the mammal – particularly by John. The lack of a dorsal fin, the existence of dorsal knuckles, colouring, white/grey patches on the head and the shape of the blow hole all convinced scientists that this was indeed a gray whale.

Perhaps the furthest a mammal has ever strayed from home? – as John Paterson pointed out.

Did you know? 

  • Gray whales are notoriously covered with parasites and other organisms which make their snouts and backs look like a crusty ocean rock.
  • Much of a grey whale’s body is covered with barnacles and whale lice. 
  • These whales dive to the ocean floor where they use their snouts to forage by dislodging tiny creatures from the seafloor
  • The gray whale – as demonstrated by this story – is “one of the animal kingdom’s great migrators. Traveling in groups called pods they swim a 20 000 kilometre round trip between their Alaskan summer homes to the warmer waters of the Mexican coasts
  • Grey whales undertake the longest annual migrationof any known mammal, along the coastlines between their summer feeding and winter breeding grounds. Belonging to the baleen whale group, they have plates for filtering marine worms and crustaceans from the ocean floor. Grey whales are split into two separate populations, the eastern North Pacific (American) and the critically endangered western North Pacific (Asian) population. They are the only species in their genus, which in turn, is the only genus in the family. 

Scientific Name -Eschrichtius robustus

Did you know sources: BBC Nature and National Geographic 

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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