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Journey to Baja California: Gaining a New Perspective on Gray Whales

female gray whale

A female gray whale greets visitors to its Baja California breeding lagoon during a special whale-watching excursion with Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

By Audrey Evans, whale watching coordinator

Earlier this season, Birch Aquarium at Scripps teamed up with Andiamo Tour Mexico to embark on a remarkable expedition to two gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. Our lucky participants were met with unique and life-changing experiences as gray whales (called “friendlies” by some) interacted with them—behavior seen nowhere else but in these lagoons.

February and March are prime months to catch more than just a glimpse of these giants in their wintering grounds, where many congregate to mate and give birth. Our adventure to the lagoons began as 37 participants crossed the U.S./Mexico border. We ventured south, listening as our knowledgeable Andiamo guide discussed Mexican culture, landmarks, and history.

The chartered bus ride was a fascinating learning experience, especially as we gazed at the changing Baja California scenery. Sandy sea cliffs turned into rolling green hills that ultimately gave way to an open desert landscape peppered with giant boojum trees and cardón cactus. As we crossed the state border into Baja California Sur, we drew closer to the breeding grounds of the gray whale.

Gray Whale History

The first lagoon we reached was Laguna Ojo de Liebre, which translates to “eye of the jackrabbit,” referring to the shape of the lagoon. “Scammon’s
Lagoon” is another common name. The latter name stems from a 19th century whaling captain, Charles Scammon, who came in search of overwintering gray whales. These whales were hunted relentlessly for oil (used as lamp fuel) and whalebone (baleen), which made products including ladies’ corsets and umbrella ribs.

Whale Calf

Whale calf in Baja California.

Gray whales are slow-moving and adhere to predictable migration routes that place them mostly in coastal waters; this made them easy targets for whalers. Overhunted, gray whales have come close to extinction two times in the last 150 years before they were officially protected. Today, the Eastern gray whale population is more than 20,000-strong, estimated to be close to the historic pre-whaling size. It is truly a conservation success story driven by changes in U.S. and Mexican laws as well as our own perception of these remarkable animals.

When peering across a whale-studded lagoon, people no longer see a gold mine. Instead, our modern perspective sparks a fascination with these creatures. Visitors are treated to an intimate look into the lives of a truly wild animal. There is no food or other reward offered to entice these whales to approach humans; their level of curiosity is as mysterious as it is awe-inspiring.

Meeting The Locals

Our first close encounter with the “friendlies” included a cow and calf pair. The cow appeared older, wearing large patches of cream-colored barnacles, which often grow with age. She initially surfaced about 20 meters from our Panga boat with her small, dark-colored calf close in tow. The Panga driver turned off the engine and within minutes the two curiously made contact with us. At this close range we were able to get a good look at the pair.

Baby Gray Whale Eye

Eye of a baby gray whale. Photo by Cynthia Parnell.

Calves are typically darker than adults, as they do not yet have the characteristic patches of symbiotic organisms. Up close, we could see the adult’s barnacles attached in clusters. Barnacles start out as free-swimming larvae and then settle onto a firm substrate—in this case whale skin. They eventually create a hard shell as they grow into adults and use feathery legs to filter plankton and other organic material from the water.

The gray whale barnacle, Cryptolepas rhachianecti, is host-specific and can only be found on gray whales. Orange-colored whale lice often surround each cluster of barnacles. These lice feed on dead skin and, like the barnacles, are a type of crustacean (different from the insect lice found on terrestrial mammals).

We appreciated our first-hand look at these tiny hitchhikers. While the calf lacked these organisms, it had noticeably distinct dimples on its rostrum (“snout” area). Each dimple possessed a single stiff hair in the center, which served as an example of the whales’ mammalian characteristics. Each time the cow and calf took a breath, we not only heard the exhale, but were surrounded by the expelled water vapor, feeling it on our faces. Despite some minor bad breath, this was an incredible encounter!

Gray whale with dimples

Gray whale calf in Baja California with rostrum dimples.

Only a day later, we found ourselves launching into another breeding lagoon: San Ignacio. This location is a little further south and a bit more remote. Within 30 minutes, we were met by more curious “friendlies.” Two adults traveled back and forth, inspecting our Panga and another nearby. Amazed, we watched as the whales spyhopped (peered with their head above water), returning beneath the surface to swirl their flukes just beneath our boat. Repeatedly, each approached within an arm’s length, again making contact with humans.

On a third outing, we returned to Ojo de Liebre and observed a mating trio. Gray whales typically mate in groups containing two males and one female. Chasing, splashing, and rolling occur before the female ultimately decides to roll with one of the males. Understandably, this group ignored our boat even though they came within 10 meters of us.

During the rest of this final 3-hour tour, we witnessed several whale breaches, more spyhopping, and one whale nearly motionless as it logged (“slept”) just beneath the surface. We were all too pleased to have another cow and calf appear for a close visit. As difficult as it was to leave the whales that day, we were grateful to have made so many priceless memories.

Final thoughts

Along our return journey north, we reflected upon our encounters with the whales. Each participant shared personal stories, whale photos, and even email addresses. To have such contact with wild animals is truly unique. To share such experiences with fellow human beings creates another special, perhaps less-anticipated, connection. Each of us now shares a new perspective on the gray whale, one which we’re likely never to lose.

Gray whale

A gray whale greets visitors to its Baja California lagoon during a special whale watching excursion with Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

Whale watching coupon

Local San Diego whale watching cruises with Birch Aquarium at Scripps end April 14. Cruises leave at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily from Flagship Cruises & Events at 990 N. Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego. For more information and to download a $5-off whale watching coupon, visit the Birch Aquarium Whale Watching page.

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