THE WHALE TRAIL
You spyhop again and slide across the ocean's surface for a moment before flipping your flukes at them and diving. Your baby moves in your belly and you can tell your time is near. You've been pregnant for over 12 months and still have about two weeks before you reach your winter home in Baja. You signal to the others in your pod to pick up the pace and swim off.
Like the Snow Birds who trek from the cold northern climes of Canada and the U.S. to Baja every year to winter on its warm, abounding beaches, the California gray whales--all 24,000 of them--make an annual 10- to 12,000-mile round trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to the protected lagoons of Baja. Some of the most playful and prolific of all cetaceans, their population has rebounded from a scant 500 in 1947 when they were put on the Endangered Species List, to what's assumed to be their original number. So remarkable has been their recovery, that they were removed from protective status in 1994.
What drove the gray whales to the brink of extinction? Humans, of course....Whalers discovered Laguna San Ignacio and Laguna Ojos de Liebre (known stateside as Scammon's Lagoon) in the mid-1800s. There was a huge market for whale products world-wide back then. Their blubber was boiled to use as fuel oil. Whalebone and baleen were used for corsets, brushes and the spokes of umbrellas. Even after whale oil was replaced by petroleum and electricity, whale meat was still used as cat food. For nearly 100 years, the gray whales of Baja were slaughtered. The whalers would block off the entrance to the tranquil lagoons where the grays mated, gave birth, nursed and frolicked with their young. Their sanctuaries became killing grounds and the waters of the Baja lagoons turned red with the blood of dying whales. Gray whale moms, like the one we met a while ago, had nasty reputations among the whalers, who called them "Devil Fish." These females were fiercely protective of their young. Oftentimes, after her baby had been murdered before her eyes, the mother would charge the whaling boats, injuring and killing their crews.
Here are few more facts about the grays. The females are larger than males, growing to about 50 feet and weighing in at 30 to 35 tons. The males only get to be about 46 feet long and weigh 25 to 20 tons. Toothless, they have filters in their mouths called baleen that sieve food from the water. They blow about three to five times in a row, then they flip their flukes, or tail fins, and dive for three to five minutes. They can stay down up to 15 minutes. And they can dive to about 400 feet, although they prefer shallower water.
The babies are about six feet long when they're born and weigh about a ton. They nurse for eight months off their mothers, whose milk contains--by the way--53 per cent fat. This rich milk helps them build up enough blubber to make the long journey back north to their feeding grounds, a trek they begin at about two months old. Grays become sexually mature somewhere between five and 11 years old. Their mating rituals, which they carry out in the protected waters of the Baja lagoons, are pretty interesting. Think about it.... These massive cetaceans have no appendages to use to hang onto each other. There's no way they could successfully mate without assistance. Because it takes at least three of them to copulate, an adolescent male comes alongside the female and holds her steady while the mature male mates with her. Good training for the future!
For the first 25 or so years that the whales were protected, scientists studied them from afar. In Laguna San Ignacio, the Mexican fishermen didn't dare go near them for fear they'd be mistaken for whalers and their pangas (wooden fishing skiffs) would be smashed to smithereens. Francisco Mayoral, a local fisherman now in his mid-50s, claims that no one who'd ever gotten near a gray whale lived ... until he had his first whale encounter back in 1972, that is. Francisco was out in his panga with some other fishermen one day, rowing to catch the outgoing tide. A whale swam up to their boat. Francisco rowed like crazy for shore. Only this gray followed him! He and the other men in the boat fell to their knees, made the sign of the cross and started praying like the dead men they thought they were. When nothing happened, Francisco opened his eyes, only to see the whale's nine-foot head with its huge, unblinking eye staring right straight at him. Then it slipped back into the water and started rubbing itself up against the boat. It did this, apparently, for nearly an hour. Then it swam away.
The locals were dumfounded. They discussed this phenomenal event among themselves, but the lagoon was so isolated that word didn't leak out to the scientific community for a few more years. It was a crew member from a whale watching boat out of San Diego, the Salado, who was the first person to actually touch a gray whale, in 1976.
Over the next five or so years, scientists descended on the area with greater and greater frequency. The playful whales--the ones who loved to be stroked and who put on shows for the humans--began to be called "Friendlies." The word spread and tourists began to show up. Soon the Mexican government began licensing guides to take boatloads of curious visitors out onto the lagoons to see the whales up close and personal.
Are the whales really safe? Are they really "friendly?" If the answers to both of those questions are yes--then how and why did they come to forgive the humans for a century of ruthless slaughter? No one really knows the answer to that question, but tour leader Lynn Mitchell of Baja Discovery Tours, a company with a "safari camp" right on San Ignacio Lagoon, things have come around so much that the mothers actually teach their babies to come to the pangas. "The babies love to be petted," she says. "And so many of the older ones love to have their baleen stroked. They all love to play. I've even had my boat picked up and carried on a mama whale's back before. And spun like a toy."
The grays show up in Southern Baja about December or January. The last stragglers take off by late April. Because the Mexican government is very strict about who's allowed near the whales, it's necessary to go on a tour with an authorized guide. There's always a group of government observers who watch all the tourists from shore with their high-powered telescopes to make sure no one hurts the whales or ventures into the off-limits areas of the lagoons.
If you're itching to get close to a gray whale, don't try to do it stateside. It's against the law. You've got to go to Baja. Here there are lots of options. You can go whale watching in Todos Santos Bay aboard a large sportfishing boat, or go for the close encounter in Scammon's Lagoon, Laguna San Ignacio Lagoon or Magdalena Bay in a 6-10 passenger panga. If you want to create your own adventure, you can drive down Baja, or take advantage of package tours that include meals, accommodations and van or bus transportation. One thing for sure is that reservations fill up fast, and the time to book is NOW!
ABOUT ANN HAZARD
Ann's second book, CARTWHEELS IN THE SAND, is an insightful novel about four women, a motorhome and their odyssey of self-discovery while traveling the Baja peninsula. Drawing upon personal experiences, Ann has created fictional characters who are totally believable and a road trip that is amazing in its authenticity.
Her newest book, AGAVE SUNSETS, is a memorable collection of 50 tales spanning four generations of Baja, its people, places and adventures along the way. Rich in knowledge of Mexican culture and lore, the 212-page AGAVE SUNSETS is a delightful and satisfying journey through Baja.
Full of colorful characters and absorbing adventures, Ann Hazard's books are enjoyable, captivating and informative for all readers, whether longtime Baja aficionados, newcomers to the peninsula, or armchair travelers. Click to order COOKING WITH BAJA MAGIC, CARTWHEELS IN THE SAND or AGAVE SUNSETS.
WHALE WATCHING TOUR DIRECTORY
COMPILED BY CONNIE ELLIG
ENSENADA (TODOS SANTOS BAY)
Ensenada Science Museum ("Caracol" Museo de
Ciencias) Tel. (646)178-7192
Sportfishing Center & Marina Tel/fax
Tours of the innermost lagoon can be arranged by driving out to the Parque Natural de la Ballena Gris, 5 miles south of town on Highway 1, then 17 miles on a graded dirt road. But if you don't have time for the drive (and possibly a return trip in case a tour is not immediately available), it is more convenient to book an excursion in advance with Malarrimo Eco-Tours, Laguna Tours or Mario's Tours, all of which offer daily 4-hour guided tours at 8am and 11am for $45dlls./adult and $35dlls/child (under age 11). The price includes a 3-hour panga excursion, box lunch, guide, taxes and round trip van transportation from town through private salt works property to the special boat departure area at the mouth of the lagoon.
AirVentures U.S. toll
free: 800-221-WAVE(9283); e-mail
El Padrino Restaurant/RV Park
Tel. (615)154-0089; fax (615)154-0222
Rice & Beans Oasis Restaurant/RV Park
Discovery U.S. toll free: 1-800-829-2252; e-mail
U.S. toll free: 1-800-843-6967; e-mail
Las Parras Tours (in
Loreto) Tel. (613)135-1010; fax (613)135-0900; e-mail
U.S. toll free: 1-800-843-6967; e-mail
Baja Whales & Wildlife
Cruise U.S. tel. (866)456-0444; e-mail
CABO PULMO MARINE PARK (SEA OF CORTES)
Disclaimer: Although information is deemed accurate, no responsibility is either implied or expressed by Ensenada Baja News-Gazette or www.Ensenada.net.mx