Gray Whale Facts: All About the Species Adorning Oregon License Plates

If you are driving down the highway next year and see a gray whale tagging along with the car in front of you, it's just the new Oregon license plate. And the swimming creature pictured on the plate is one with a serious comeback story.

The upcoming design is called the "Coastal Playground" and will be an option available through the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, The Oregonian reported. Depicted on the vehicle tag are a mama gray whale and her calf swimming near the state's coast. Sales of the special edition plate will support Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, which works on whale conservation.

Gray whales have a complicated history on the Pacific coast. All around the world, the animals have had certain protections since the 1930s, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service. The Eastern North Pacific gray whales, which live near the western American coast, were previously on the endangered species list.

But over the years, and with significant conservation efforts, "they had recovered to near their estimated original population size and were not in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range." The Eastern North Pacific gray whale came off the endangered species list in 1994.

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Oregon is honoring gray whales, a previously locally endangered species, with special edition license plates. Merrill Gosho/NOAA

Scientists and other experts still monitor the whales.

Meanwhile, the Western North Pacific gray whale population is still endangered, according to NOAA.

"The Western North Pacific population remains highly depleted and its continued survival is questionable," the administration reported. "This population is estimated to include fewer than 100 individuals."

The marine mammals are massive, with their "mottled gray" bodies clocking in at about 50 feet long and 80,000 pounds, according to NOAA's description. These baleen whales might live as long as 80 years and tend to frequent shallow coastal waters, where aside from humans their only predator is the orca, also known as a killer whale.

Among the threats to gray whales is the commercial catching of the creatures, which greatly contributed to their depletion in the mid-19th and early 20th century and is done illegally today. They're also susceptible to collisions with ships, habitat loss and noise pollution.