Gray whales have the longest known migration of any mammal. They travel 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip every year from their summer feeding grounds in the cold Arctic seas to the warm water breeding grounds of the Baja lagoons. There are three major lagoons in Baja that the whales inhabit — they are Scammon’s Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Magdalena Bay.
Luckily, the Mexican government strictly regulates access to these lagoons to ensure that any human activities do not affect the whales while they are in the quiet, protected lagoons of Baja, California. The gray whales have used these lagoons for centuries, both for mating and birthing. The lagoons are remote and provide a protected area for the gray whale to reproduce.
Called “friendlies” by the locals, many whales now seek out human contact in the lagoons. This behavior was first reported in 1976 in the San Ignacio Lagoon and has grown each year. During “friendly” encounters, the gray whale will approach a skiff with passengers and may come alongside and surface so the tourists can touch (or sometimes even “kiss) the friendly whale. Toward the end of the winter season, the calves become quite curious about the tourist boats and some of the mother whales allow their babies to spend time with the tourists. Occasionally a mother will even encourage this behavior by lifting her calf up for tourists to touch. Many of the skiff drivers notice that the gray whales seem to be attracted to the small outboard engines of the skiffs and also by a splashing noise.
History of Gray Whales in the Baja Lagoons
In the 1800s gray whales were called “devil fish” because when whalers harpooned their calves, the mothers destroyed a lot of the small whaling boats. Whalers killed a large percentage of the whales to the brink of extinction. The drop in population made it no longer profitable to hunt gray whales and they were left alone until their numbers recovered. However, the early 1900s brought the invention of the factory ships, which processed whales aboard the vessels. This new technology allowed intensive hunting of gray whales once again, and their population again dangerously dropped to probably fewer than 2,000. Protection finally came in 1946 through an international agreement to stop hunting them. Since that time, the population has grown to 26,000, similar to what it was before modern-day whaling.
In the mid-1970s, a curious whale approached a group of fishermen in the San Ignacio Lagoon. It stuck its head out of the water and kept coming closer. This made the fishermen incredibly nervous, but one of them conquered his fear and held out his hand and touched the whale. In some bizarre way, the proverbial peace treaty has developed over the years into a unique whale culture.
In 1995, the Mexican government wanted to expand its salt mining operation to the shore of the San Ignacio Lagoon. The $120 million expansion would have created 200 jobs, but it would have created devastating environmental damage in the lagoon. Luckily, Jeff Pantukhoff (aka The WhaleMan) visited the lagoon on a very special trip. When he found out about the proposed salt plant, he quit his job as a telecommunications National Account Manager and started his non-profit, The Whaleman Foundation, whose mission is to forever preserve and protect dolphins, whales, and our oceans. Jeff made his first film titled “Gray Magic, The Plight of San Ignacio Lagoon” for the United Nations featuring Pierce Brosnan and his wife Keely, who along with actress Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas, are spokespersons for his foundation and his “Save the Whales Again!” campaign. It took five years, but due to the collective efforts involved, San Ignacio Lagoon was saved.
Our planet’s biodiversity and wildlife are usually best enjoyed from a distance, to preserve both their safety and ours. In many places around the world, boats compete in such a way that a whale is surrounded on all sides. This causes visible stress to the animal and the risk of propeller injuries can be high. In the Baja lagoons, it’s different — in this tight-knit isolated community, the whales run the show. They initiate and control any interactions. While this is not the norm, it’s an inspirational look at how a community’s relationship with whales has undergone a wonderfully bizarre transformation.
During the months of December to April when gray whales come into the lagoon to mate and calve, fishermen switch from fishing to whale tourism. With the ever-declining fish stocks, these whales are fast becoming the backbone of the local economy. The fishermen of the lagoons take their role of protectors of this whale nursery very seriously. The well being of these whales is critical to the well being of the fishing community.
When the whales depart the lagoons to begin their northward migration, they appear to leave their “friendly” behavior behind and are not known to approach other boats outside of the lagoon.
Check out this incredible footage from National Geographic!
Gray whales are medium-sized whales, reaching up to 49 feet in length, with the females usually being larger than the males. They are grey with white patches, which mostly consist of areas where barnacles and lice have attached themselves to the whales. In fact, they carry over 400 pounds of barnacles and whale lice. Beyond their color, there are a few distinguishing characteristics that can help identify gray whales.
Blow or spot: Like other baleen whales, gray whales have two blowholes. When they breathe out, the spray (also called the ‘blow’) sometimes takes the shape of a heart.
Flukes: Gray whale flukes are rounder than the well-known humpback flukes, with a distinct heart-shape.
Distinctive Dorsum (Back): Gray whales do not have a dorsal fin. Instead, they have a low hump and a series of six to twelve knuckles or bumps.
Breaching Behavior: Though not quite as acrobatic as the humpback whale, gray whales will emerge from the water and land in a giant splash, a behavior know as breaching.
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