A newborn gray whale is no shrimp when it's born. Imagine a pug-nosed baby 15 feet long that weighs almost 2,000 pounds! Let's look closer:
Gray and Rubbery
Newborns are a deep gray color. They may have many white or gray patches and flecks. Baby whales are quickly infested with colorful whale lice that live in the creases of their skin. The baby's shiny skin feels like wet rubber. It makes a good waterproof jacket for the baby.
Dented and Dimpled
Some people call the babies "pickleheads" because their skin is "pickled," or dented and dimpled. Hairs grow from those dents. After all, gray whales are mammals and all mammals have hair—even if just a few whiskers.
A baby's flukes and flippers are very floppy at first, but they soon gain strength. The calf begins to actively explore the lagoon. Mom stays close to her curious calf.
The mouth of a newborn makes up about 90% of the length of its head and about 15% of the length of its entire body. The bottom of the mouth is bigger than the top, making the mouth look upside-down.
How does the baby nurse with a mouth like that? The calf opens it mouth and special muscles around the mother's mammary glands let her squirt milk quickly into the baby's mouth. It's not easy to drink under water, but the shape of the calf's tongue is designed not to spill. By the time it's an adult, the whale's tongue is about the size of a compact car!
Gray whales have baleen instead of teeth. When the calf is weaned off its mother's milk, it will get food by filtering large volumes of mud and water through the baleen. The comb-like baleen catch tiny crustaceans in the hair-like fringe as water and mud are pushed out of the mouth. The young whale will lick the food off the baleen with its huge tongue.
Babies are born lean, and will need to build up blubber. The warmer waters of the nursery lagoons help newborns conserve body heat. They drink about 50 gallons of milk each day. Their mother's milk contains 53% fat. The rich milk helps the calves gain 60 to 70 pounds a day.
Ready to Travel
The nursery lagoon is the safest place they'll ever be. During three or four months in the lagoon they grow in size and build up blubber. They're strong enough to start the cold trip north with Mom.