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.

Droning

“When you launch, you’re going to need to go up and out”, Emily told me as I surveyed our small launch area with horror. The stern deck of the boat was covered and our drones would be launched and recovered at arms length from the bobbing vessel. I was still staring. “Have you ever caught your drone by hand?”, Emily asked patiently. Of course I hadn’t, I like my hands. Empty fields are my favourite launch areas and, even then, I find it all a bit nerve-wracking.

Flying over water from a small, moving platform was always going to be mildly terrifying at best. Luckily I was under the close supervision of Emily, a calm, experienced drone pilot, and with her help the flight ended without mishap. Seeing the whales from the air had been the aim of the workshop but several factors needed to align for that to happen. We were in luck: we had good flying weather, calm seas and a trio of gray whales moving steadily south towards the lagoons of Baja.

From the air we could suddenly see them all, from their barnacle-ly rostrums to their broad tail flukes. They were huge, streamlined and making their mammoth migration look effortless. Their mottled grey bodies glowed in the sunlight, their blows forming fleeting rainbows (rainblows, if you like). It was an impressive sight and absolutely worth the raised blood pressure.

Of course there are regulations to adhere to when operating drones, particularly around wildlife. Many areas are off limits to drones altogether. If you are allowed to fly, there may be local regulations or flight restrictions to adhere to. In addition, because marine mammals are protected by law it’s illegal to disturb them. With that in mind, federal guidelines recommend keeping a safe aerial distance of at least 1000 feet (300 yards) from marine mammals in the wild. More information on how to view marine wildlife responsibly can be found here on NOAA’s website.