Friendly whales

The gray whale surfaced with a blow alongside a panga full of whale-watchers and hung there, huge head held above the water as the passengers leant over the side. Some lay their hands flat against the whale’s skin, others scratched and patted the whale vigorously like you might pat a big dog. The whale rolled slightly onto its side and opened its mouth revealing the creamy coloured baleen I’d previously only seen on stranded animals or in museums. As the freshening breeze blew the panga downwind, the whale sank then resurfaced, actively working to stay alongside the boat.

That might sound magical but did I mention the screaming? Over the whirr of outboard engines, the slap slap of waves against hulls and waterproofs flapping in the wind, were the shrieks of excited whale-watchers. And it was exciting but, for me, magical it was not. More than anything I was puzzled. I’d heard plenty about encounters with friendly whales in these salty lagoons but seeing it for real was something else. Why would the whales actively seek contact with people, was it just that they liked to have a good scratch? And why only do this here, in the lagoons of Baja? The whales had been hunted almost to extinction in this very place, and now they liked to be tickled by tourists? The panga next to mine burst into song.

With time, and some jostling from our captain, the whale surfaced beside us. The feathery appendages of the whale’s barnacles, now thrust above the surface, worked the air furiously. Whale lice clustered around the whale’s blowholes, pastel peach against the grey of the whale. It blew and a blast of spray shot past us. I reached out instinctively, as I would if a horse had trotted to a fence beside me. Far from stroking the whale or doing the recommended hearty scratch, I prodded it square in the rostrum and immediately felt a fraud for having touched it at all. I stuck to filming with my GoPro after that, capturing the details of this incredible and, to me, inexplicable encounter.

The encounter went on. Others joined the whale until we had three whales around us. The jostling and singing continued. If that was part of what attracted the whales, I was glad of it.

Later that evening, as the wind gently rustled my tent and the town’s dogs barked in the distance, I sat with my laptop warm against my knees and watched the day’s footage. Plunged beneath the waves into a steadier world of hissing waves and engine noise, my GoPro had captured the encounter from an entirely different perspective. I held my breath as a whale filled the frame; narrow encrusted rostrum then arching jaw, skin a patchy grey palette. Sunlight bent by the waves illuminated then shaded the whale as bubbles from a breaking wave fizzed to the surface. Then, as the whale cruised slowly by, an inquisitive eye. Perhaps I had seen the whale before as a distant blow in Alaska or feeding in a Californian cove. Now, at the end of our journeys in the shallow lagoons of Baja, the tables had turned.

Migration update

When I visited the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project at Point Vicente centre on 8th December, it was a year to the day since the team had seen their first southbound gray whale of the previous year’s migration. Although we didn’t see any gray whales that day it was lovely to meet census director Alisa Schulman-Janiger and her fantastic team of volunteers. The day hadn’t been entirely blubber-free though, I’d passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins cruising along the surf zone as I’d cycled out to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a real treat on a squally December day.

This year, the first southbound whales weren’t seen from Point Vicente until 12th December as they started trickling south. Almost two months later, the migration is now in full swing and, as of 3rd February, 302 southbound gray whales have been counted including 28 calves that have been born along the way. The counts are updated daily on the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project website along with information about how this year’s migration compares to last year’s.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch, to the north, has been enjoying plenty of gray whale sightings too. Monterey Bay is where northbound mother calf-pairs returning from the breeding lagoons of Mexico are forced to run the gauntlet as they cross the deep water of Monterey submarine canyon, where killer whales wait. If you’ve seen footage of killer whales hunting gray whale calves, chances are it was filmed in Monterey Bay with input from Nancy Black, the local killer whale expert. Unusually, this year the killer whales have also been hunting southbound gray whale calves (this video on the Monterey Bay Whale Watch Facebook page has amazing drone footage of killer whales and gray whales from 26th January). Killer whales are just one of the dangers the gray whales face on their incredible journeys.

Further north again, the Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study has been also been keeping watch. Despite some days with heavy whale traffic, overall they’ve had their lowest January count since they began monitoring the gray whales seven years ago. This could be due to changes in the timing of the migration (a later start was observed this year), the detectability of the whales (because of poor sighting conditions, for example, or behavioural changes) or their abundance.

Of course, the migration isn’t a clear-cut event and some individuals will be way ahead of, or far behind, the crowds. Two very keen gray whales were seen in the most northerly of the Baja lagoons – Ojo de Liebre – on 10th December. Further south in San Ignacio lagoon, boat surveys conducted by the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program to count the whales don’t begin until late January. Last year the highest whale count was on 25th February before the numbers began dropping off as the whales returned north. Again, not all whales are on exactly the same schedule; 10 northbound whales have already passed Point Vicente on their way back to their feeding grounds. Whichever way they’re going, the whales are on the move!