Mexico / Baja California  / Grey Whales
Thursday, March 23, 2017

Grey Whales

Walbeobachtung Guerrero Negro
Whale Watching Guerrero Negro
Walmutter & -kind
Mother & Child
Human observation
Walbeobachtung San Ignacio
Whale Watching San Ignacio

Looking for food and refuge, the ancestors of whales left the land about 60 million years ago and established themselves in the oceans.

In their new habitat, they evolved to become the largest animals that have ever lived on this planet. There were no animals they had to fear – until man discovered the many benefits whales could bring. The animals provided whale-oil, soap, gelatin, combs, meat, manure, perfume and other things so that they were hunted wherever they were found.

Today, when you ask people who enjoy traveling what the main attractions are of Baja California, they are almost sure to mention gray whales. Whale-watching made the peninsula famous all over the world and sustains a whole industry. For only 4 months, but reliably, the whales appear of the west coast of the peninsula. From mid-December each year to early May they arrive as if controlled by a clock. Why only for such a limited time, and where are the animals during the rest of the year?

The animals come from far north, and their migration is one of the most amazing feats of all mammals. Gray whales once were present all over the northern Pacific and Atlantic and even inhabited the North and Baltic Seas. After centuries of whaling, however, they survived only in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. When it is summer on the northern hemisphere, about 20,000 animals live here and find plenty of food in the nutrient-rich waters. Gray whales, although being whalebone whales, feed somewhat differently from their larger cousins in the oceans. They do not filter free-swimming plankton, but comb the sea-bottom for crustaceans, worms, mollusks und other similar animals. Therefore they always stay near the coast in water of relatively shallow depth. This applies also during their migration to the south, which starts in early October. At an average speed of 115 miles (185 km) a day, they pass through the Gulf of Alaska and continue along the coast of California. They arrive off San Diego about Christmas and a little later reach the peninsula of Baja California. The animals keep a precise order during their migration. The vanguard is formed by some females in very advanced stages of pregnancy. They are followed by mothers with yearlings and finally by small pods of adolescent females and adult and adolescent males.

Once in the Mexican waters of the Pacific, the northern loners turn into passionate lovers. In their love games with somersaults and skilled acrobatics, one cow is usually wooed by two bulls. In the shallow lagoons of Baja, the pregnant cows meanwhile give birth. A great group of whales gathers for this event, which takes place about 30 ft (10 m) under the water surface. The mother slaps her newborn to make it surface and take its first breath. At birth, the calf weighs between 1,550 and 3,100 pounds (700 to 1,400 kg) and is about 13 to 16 ft (4 - 5 m) long. An adult gray whale can be up to 52 ft (16 m) long and reach a weight of some 40 tons. The whale babies gain about 2200 pounds (1,000 kg) in the first two months by drinking up to 50 gallons a day (200 l) of the very rich milk. This is necessary, because the young whales do not have the insulating blubber of older animals. Only after 2 to 3 months of suckling are they large and “insulated” enough to start the long journey back to the cold waters.

The young always stay very close to their mothers and are trained in the lagoons to be fit swimmers. After 2 months (when the northward journey begins), they have already reached a length of about 20 ft (6 m) and a weight of two tons, i.e., doubled their birth weight, whereas the mothers do not eat during this time and lose much weight. The young are also fed during the migration northwards and are only weaned in the arctic waters, when they are 6 months old. Altogether these giants travel nearly 12,500 miles (20,000 km) each year – the longest route known of any mammal.
Although in the winter months, gray whales can be observed along the whole western coast of Baja California, three lagoons of Baja California Sur stand out for major concentrations, from north to south:

  • Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammon‘s Lagoon) south of Guerrero Negro
  • Laguna San Ignacio about 30 miles (50 km) southwest of the village of San Ignacio
  • Bahía Magdalena / Bahía Almejas west of the town of Cuidad Constitución

All these lagoons have shallow, relatively warm and salty water that buoys up the young. The three lagoons are protected from winds, lined by mangroves and have been identified as nature reserves. During the whale season, there is a rush to these places. Although it is possible to observe the whales from the land, a direct experience is possible only in the small, fast vessels that transport groups the whole day. The spout, the exhaled air, shows from a distance, where the whales are. And since gray whales are fairly active, they will give you unforgettable impressions. For instance, when several males are wooing and pursuing one female or when a whale – often several times in a row – breaching from the water so that most of its body is in the air and falls back with a big splash – an exciting spectacle! Observers are always fascinated by the fluke, when it hits the water or pops up high into the air, just before the whale dives. Unlike fish, which breathe through gills, whales have lungs and must therefore surface to take a breath. Specific muscles open the closures of the blowholes, when they breathe. Emerging the whale ejects more than 1000 l (35 cu ft) of air through the blowhole. Sometimes, the head of a gray whale suddenly appears next to the boat and gives the impression of observing you very carefully. In such instances you can easily see the barnacles that cover the skin like white spots. Specialists can recognize individual whales by the pattern of these spots.

Particular favorites are cows with their calves. The young are very curious and sometimes approach the boats voluntarily, often so close that the tourist‘s longing for direct contact with a whale can finally be fulfilled. Often also seen during these excursions are dolphins and marine birds, e.g. brown pelicans, frigate birds, gulls, cormorants, ospreys and herons.

The spectacle that is such a favorite today was, however, close to not being, the gray whales were near extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. The Atlantic stock had already vanished some time before after intensive whaling, and from 1850 the Pacific had become a large-scale whaling ground. According to estimations by then whaler Charles Melville Scammon (for whom Scammon‘s Lagoon is named), about 1000 whales a day passed the Californian coast between December 15 and February 1 at that time. Twenty-five years later, only some 40 animals a day were counted in the same period. They were harpooned in the shallow water of the lagoons, old as well as young, about 10,000 whales between 1850 and 1874. In the late 19th century, only 250 of the original stock of an estimated 25,000 animals were left so that whaling was no longer worthwhile. Catching gray whales has been prohibited worldwide since 1935, but only, when the USA launched the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, was an efficient protection achieved. Since then, the stock has recovered fast and has almost reached the number before whaling began – to the pleasure of whale-watchers and organizers. Whale-watching in Mexico – a good example of how a long-term reconciliation between protection of the nature and economic interests can be achieved.