JJ the Orphan Gray Whale

JJ, the baby gray whale who was rescued and grew up at SeaWorld, is a heartwarming miracle and a reason to be joyful and happy about at the end of this troubling and difficult year.

This is the time of year when gray whales make their annual migration home to the lagoons, bays, harbours, and basically every tiny bit of protected water around Baja California, Mexico. The males cruise in and out of each hangout looking for females. Females do exactly the same thing, except for those that are pregnant and looking for calm, shallow, protected safe nurseries. Calves are typically birthed at the beginning of every January in the lagoons. Sadly, some mommas give birth along the way, creating a very difficult survival situation for those calves out in the open ocean.

In January 1997, a week-old gray whale calf was discovered battered in the beach surf at Marina Del Rey in California, weak, emaciated, and dehydrated, with no momma in sight. She was the cetacean equivalent of a newborn baby, at 14 ft long and weighing just 1670 lbs. Rescuers spring into action, with SeaWorld offering the use of their staff and facilities. Astonishingly, the little baby whale responded to round-the-clock care, which included a substitute for momma’s milk with water, dry milk, whipping cream, and ground herring. Yummy!!! The whale was soon named JJ after Judi Jones, who had cared for many other rescued marine animals.

JJ started growing, and kept on growing!! After 1 month, she gained 900 lbs and grew 18”, and was moved to one of the orca tanks at SeaWord. By 4 months, she was eating solid food, including squid and small fish, and by 8 months old, she was devouring 850 lbs of food a day.

Knowing that it would be impossible for a fully grown gray whale to survive in an aquarium tank, great efforts were made to acclimate JJ to the wild with the intention of releasing her the following spring to join the northward migration of gray whales in April and May. Divers started leaving her food in different places around the aquarium. To everyone’s delight, JJ’s instincts kicked in, and she rolled onto her right side, “hoovering” up the food on the bottom, just as gray whales do in the wild (most gray whales are “right-handed” when it comes to feeding). Her blubber continued to grow thicker.

Gray whales are vocal and communicate with a language all of their own. Caregivers started playing recordings of gray whales in the wild, and JJ started making noises in response. At 1 year old, when JJ weighed 18,000 pls and was 30 feet in length. SeaWorld introduced video camera-equipped California sea lions into her tank to acclimate JJ to the idea of being around other animals and capture some fantastic footage at the same time.

The timing for her release was critical to her survival, and the following spring, JJ was lifted by crane into a specially padded and shaped foam equipped truck, with her skin kept wet with water. She was then, transferred to a buoy tender coast guard ship for a first-class ride to the waters of San Diego.

Once back in the ocean, JJ took a big breath, dove deep, and disappeared. She was on her own, with researchers in a small boat following her. They observed her moving around and seemingly exploring, behaving like any other gray whale, including spy-hopping behaviour. We like to think she was poking her head out of the water to look for all the people who had cared for her.

Scientists had equipped her with 4 radio tracking devices, but by the end of her second day at sea, she had scrapped off all the devices and was gone.

Gray whales typically live for 50 to 60 years. JJ will be 27 years old during our upcoming whale season, and we all hope that she is happy and healthy with babies of her own and that she comes to visit us at San Ignacio Lagoon.

  • Captain Mike

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