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Gentle Giants: Gray Whales in Baja California

What would it be like to touch and be touched by a whale? One traveler finds out in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California.

an adult gray whale comes partly out of the water, image
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy of José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez/ Wikipedia
Photo caption
An adult gray whale emerges from the water next to its calf.

Six of us are squeezed into a fiberglass fishing panga not much bigger than a rowboat when two 40-ton animals surface like submarines a hundred yards off the port side. I cinch my life vest a bit tighter. Each of the adult gray whales steaming straight toward us is about 50 feet long, the length of a semitrailer.

This chance to come eye to eye—and perhaps finger to fin—with one of the world's largest creatures is exactly why my fellow travelers and I have come to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California. We've all seen whales in the wild before—black-and-white orcas along the fir-trimmed shores of Washington State, or humpbacks in a berg-filled Alaskan bay. But most of those encounters offered only fleeting glimpses. What would it feel like, we whale lovers wondered, to come really close to one of these giants of the deep? What would it be like to touch and be touched by a whale?

To find out, 16 of us had hopped into a van the day before and driven from San Diego to the Tijuana airport, where we boarded a chartered plane. After a two-hour flight we touched down at a dirt landing strip 600 miles to the south. We'd each paid about $2,500 (flight, food, cot, and solar-powered showers and toilets included) to camp for five days on a remote stretch of the Vizcaíno Desert that pokes into the middle of this gray whale nursery on Baja's Pacific side.

No need for binoculars here. Whales breach, poke their heads above the water in exploratory spy hops, and otherwise cavort throughout the protected bay day and night, easily visible—and audible with each deep, steamy breath—from a boat, the beach, or even your tent. From late January to early April, gray whales come here to mate, give birth, and nurse until the calves are strong enough to swim the 5,000 miles north to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.

The most powerful lure at this Unesco World Heritage site is a whale behavior that no one can explain. Since the mid- 1970s some gray whales—local fishermen estimate about 10 to 15 percent of those now migrating here each winter—have sought close human contact, swimming up to small boats to observe and even gently nuzzle passengers. Friendly mother whales seem to encourage their young to make contact, guides say. In fact, some newborn grays that hide behind their moms early in the season are eager to be touched a few weeks later.

The whales aren't seeking food. Grays are baleen whales; instead of teeth, adults have a double row of densely tufted fringe to filter tiny crustaceans from giant mouthfuls of mud. The calves drink only their mothers' milk, a rich cocktail that's 50 percent fat. So neither adult whales nor their offspring have any use for human treats. Instead, they seem drawn to us for the same reason we're drawn to them: curiosity.

On this still February morning on the lagoon, the two whales that have just surfaced abruptly disappear, their heartshaped flukes rippling the water as they dive. We humans hold our breath too, and then gasp. One of the whales, spackled with rough patches of barnacles, has swum just beyond the panga and is doubling back. It nudges the boat with its head and then comes up spouting a heavy mist of fishy whale breath. We squeal and laugh, lightly splashing the water, hoping to bring the whale closer. Suddenly, it lifts its head toward me. At our guide's urging, I reach out and lightly massage its lips. Except for where the barnacles cling, its skin feels like plastic wrap stretched over a thick sponge. The gray could easily tip us. Instead, it delicately swims alongside and underneath us for 20 or 30 minutes, coming close enough to be gently stroked by each of us. Several times, it tilts and lifts its mammoth head partway out of the water, eyes open and searching. We pull off our sunglasses, the better to see and be seen. It's tough to say who's watching whom—and who is enjoying it more.

Grey Whale Facts
General Information:

Lifespan: 40-plus years
Nickname: "Devilfish," for the ferocious, boat-sinking way mothers defended calves against 19th-century whalers
Last commercially hunted on a large scale off North American coast: 1946
Estimated Pacific gray whale population in 1946: Nearly extinct
Estimated population today: Approximately 20,000
Longest a whale can stay submerged without breathing: 15 minutes
Estimated weight of all of the barnacles on the hide of a typical adult: 200 to 400 pounds

Annual round-trip commute from Baja to arctic seas and back: 10,000 miles or more
Typical migration speed: 4-6 miles per hour
Commute duration each way: 2 to 3 months
Loss of body fat during migration: 11-30 percent

Family Life:
Gestation: 12 to 13 months
Birth weight: Up to 1,500 pounds
Birth length: 14-16 feet
Delivery style: Breech (flukes first)
Calving frequency: Every couple of years
Family life: Short and sweet. Attentive mothers wean calves at around seven months.

Adults' favorite food: Tiny mud-dwelling crustaceans and tube worms
Adult's approximate daily food ration in the summer: A ton of crustaceans
Daily food ration in winter: Nothing

Global Warming:
Effect on gray whales: Some experts speculate that climate-related changes in ice flow and formation in northern waters or declines in phytoplankton may be pushing the whales to expand their feeding grounds.

This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.