Gray whales in search of calm, shallow, nutrient-rich and predator-free waters typically visit one of three lagoon complexes along the Baja Peninsula’s Pacific side. A gray whales’ only predator, the orca, will not venture into the shallows. Here in this safe zone, mama “cows” birth and raise their “calves”, teaching them to swim, breathe and dive. And where whales assemble, whale watchers swarm. Who doesn’t want to see a baby whale?
The smallest and least visited of these lagoons is Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateo at the far north end of Magdalena Bay. Here, a mere 10 minute panga ride (22ft fishing boat) is all it takes to get you up close and personal with these amazing creatures. Prime viewing months are January–March when nearly 1000 visitors per weekend deluge Puerto Mateo’s 2000 residents. The dusty, isolated fishing village contrasts severely with their unexpectedly modern embarcadero. Obviously, the friendly whales have become a mainstay of this town’s livelihood.
Our tour along Lopez Mateo’s vast desert-lagoon complex reminds me of the low, barrier islands of Florida or North Carolina. Except here, it appears virtually uninhabited, with no structures visible for miles. The inland side of this skinny waterway is lined in gnarled mangroves and marshes. The Pacific side comprises a narrow barrier island undulating in smooth, creamy sand dunes. Shifting sand bars abound. Sea lions pop their heads above water to have a look at us newcomers. A bevy of birds conduct a crucial congressional summit beachside.
After a brief, windy ride skimming the shallow banks at top speed, we began to see an occasional “log” floating in the distance. Our driver slows to a crawl, turning towards center channel. Minus the engine roar, the lagoon settles back into its divinely serene state. No wonder the whales love it here. Aside from water lapping gently against our hull, the only other sound is the soft chittering of tourists in nearby pangas (just 2-3 others). We all sit waiting in hushed anticipation, watching for the telltale blast of hot air.
“Wooosh.” The entire boatload hears its sudden breath, gasps in unison and turns to see a 40ft mama gray whale and its 15ft baby just off our bow. We collectively “oooh” and “ahhhh” and “wow”, grinning from ear-to-ear, furiously filming and photo’ing. I resist the urge to start clapping. My composed, middle-aged self wants to shout: “Bravo! Encore!” My giggly 3-yr-old self is jumping up and down singing: “Do it again! Do it again!” In reality, I smile for two hours and keep whispering “Oh, my gosh!” over and over.
It never got old.
Where Humans and Whales Connect
Why visit the Pacific Baja lagoons to whale-watch? Nowhere else on earth is there such a concentration of gray whales. And this particular species seems, incredibly, to crave human interaction. Once our panga arrived in their territory, the whales came to us. Mama, with baby close alongside, swims within an arm’s length of our unmoving boat… diving underneath us, circling around to the other side, trolling, inspecting, blowing bubbles. Baby whales seem even more curious about us visitors. We witnessed them lolling on their backs, performing barrel rolls and gently flicking their tails at us, almost like they were waving.
Countless times, we were greeted by a maneuver called “spyhopping” – suddenly the whales’ giant head raises out of the water, eyeballing the crazy camera-clicking occupants from only a few feet away before sinking down just as fast. “Well…hello there!”
Heeeere whaley, whaley, whaley…come here! That’s a good girl!
Mother whales frequenting Baja lagoons are renowned for showing off their youngsters. It is common for mamas to nudge their baby close to a tour boat, even allowing it to rest on top of her while essentially “presenting” the calf for petting and kissing, to the delight of cooing and squealing passengers. So, as is the tourist custom, we leaned over the boat gunnel, splashing and waving our hands underwater, hoping to spark their curiosity… like entreating a dog to come over and play. Only one guy in our boat was able to fleetingly pat a baby (it’s in the video); Brian was next to him and got within inches. They did not seem to be in a petting mood today.
Hangin’ with Whales
We watched them in awe for two hours, just “hanging out” with whales… sometimes a pair, sometimes several. These guys were very low-key. We’d catch glimpses of a big mama and her smaller baby floating like adjacent logs on the surface as they took a breath or two. But they didn’t remain exposed for long, humping their backs and sinking fast. Their blows were gentile, not the 15ft high water spout you’d expect. Only once did I see a real fluke flick. No breaching. (That’s cool from afar, not cool from 10 ft.)
It seemed 90% of their bodies were always hidden below the murky water. So the couple times one swam underneath us at just the right angle and depth, bright sunlight revealed a stunningly massive body. More like a submarine. Glad I’m on someone else’s boat!
All in the Family
These remarkable giants acted like we were supposed to be there, enjoying each other’s company. Indeed, socializing with humans is their new-normal. It seems we are no longer unwelcome intruders into their world. At best, human tourists have become a part of the family. Hopefully at worst, distant 4th cousins who show up unannounced for lunch. But these creatures kindly greet and welcome us into their home with aplomb anyway. “Take lots of pictures, kiss the baby, wave bye-bye to the crazy people!” Why isn’t there a Pixar film yet?
Which leads me to ponder: What are they thinking, exactly? Do they intrinsically know we appreciate their presence? Are they showing off their children to us like a proud, smiling new parent? Or are they presenting us to their babies, “Look at these strange two-legged beings. Go ahead dear, get a good look. Aren’t they funny looking?” They seem to enjoy playing with the boats - maybe we are their TV entertainment, whiling away lazy-days in the lagoon before an arduous northern migration. Or maybe, as with all mammals, a loving pat on the head just feels nice.
From “Devil Fish” to “Snuggle Fish”
In the prior century, gray whales were notorious for their fierce defense upon attack by whalers, earning the nickname “Devil Fish”. Protected since the 1940’s, grays are no longer endangered, now boasting a thriving population over 20,000 strong. We watched a documentary that suggested gray whales DO remember failed attacks – hence the premise for Moby Dick (though a sperm whale). Might a few of these elder whales actually have been alive when protection wasn’t quite guaranteed? Possibly. But it appears they and the current generation have forgiven us humans for the whaling era. An approaching small boat no longer signifies a fight to the death. Now, small boats are met with curiosity, playfulness, even affection. Hmmm. Maybe we should change that moniker to “Snuggle Fish”?
(Well, “facts” from random internet sources… none of which seem to agree on numbers and may or may not be “actual facts”… but probably close enough to reality. Is that enough of a disclaimer?)
- Every year, gray whales migrate from Alaska’s Bering Sea to the coastal lagoons of the Baja Peninsula and back, traveling 9,000-14,000 miles round trip, the longest mammal migration.
- Gray whales swim an average of 5mph. (About the same as Indigo!)
- Adults can reach up to 47-50 ft length and weigh up to 36-40 tons (as much as 5 adult elephants). Indigo is 34ft long and weighs @ 6-1/2 tons. Guess who would win?
- Gray whales do not have a dorsal fin, just 6-12 small bumps on their back.
- Baby whales are about 15 ft when born, weighing about 1000 pounds!
- Gray whales can live to 50 - 70 years old.
- One whale feeds on approx. 2200 pounds of crustaceans through its baleen – PER DAY! Talk a about a pricy grocery bill.
Aquarium of the Pacific
American Cetatean Society