Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pacific Gray Whales: The Sequel

By Kristy McCaffrey

“Out there are whales, living by light and ancient brain...”
           ~ Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan, Sightings


We’re sitting in a military airport lounge in Ensenada awaiting a 2-1/2 hour flight to San Ignacio Lagoon, a remote inlet on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur and the only undeveloped nursery and breeding ground for gray whales in the world. Guests returning from the lagoon have disembarked from the propeller-driven plane we’re about to board and crowd into the waiting area, queuing up for a bag search before they can move on. They are sunburned, their hair askew, but are more than pleased to pass along what they experienced in one-word revelations.



A Pacific Gray whale.

They’ve just spent three days interacting with Pacific Gray whales in one of three calving lagoons located in Baja Mexico. I know of what they speak, having done it myself last April for one afternoon. The extraordinary experience left me awestruck, and you can read that blog post here. Naturally, I wanted to return and immediately began planning it. Because I craved more time with the leviathans, I booked a 5-day trip at a camp along the shores of the lagoon. I also brought along my husband, and my oldest son Sam and his girlfriend Alex. They were Baja-newbies. Soon, they’d be initiates to a remarkable communion between man and whale.

My husband and I at the dirt airstrip at San Ignacio Lagoon,
Baja California Sur, Mexico.

The plane ride offers our first glimpse of the whales, and I press my face to the window with longing. The 35- to 45-foot beauties are about the size of a piece of rice. We probably wouldn’t have noticed them if the pilot, Enrique, hadn’t pointed them out. The anticipation builds.

Flying over San Ignacio Lagoon.

Our cabins at Campo Cortez, run by Baja Ecotours.

After many hours of travel by air and bus, we arrive at the lagoon along with 20 other intrepid travelers. This isn’t the type of excursion a casual tourist takes. Campo Cortez is run by Baja Ecotours. It’s small, clean, and efficient, utilizing mostly wind and solar power. Everyone disburses to individual huts that have electrical outlets with enough juice to charge most devices (i.e. camera batteries—there is no internet or cell service so we all shut our phones off); laptops must be plugged in at the palapa, or dining hall. There are four toilets and two showers, although it’s recommended that you bathe every other day since fresh water must be trucked in.

Inside our cabin.

Our first Baja sunset. On the right is a giant Osprey, or Sea Hawk, nest.

As darkness descends, the night sky is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. There are no towns, no lights, no airplanes overhead. The arm of the Milky Way streaks above us and I’m witness to a starry sky that our ancestors viewed nightly. I wonder what the whales are doing. Is day and night so different for them? Do they sleep? For months I’ve educated myself about the Pacific Gray whale, but I’m hungry for more. In the palapa is a shelf filled with books about Eschrichtius robustus. Here is what I learn.

A Pacific Gray whale calf and mother.

** Pacific Gray whales have twice almost been slaughtered to extinction. In 1946 they were placed under protection and their numbers have rebounded to over 20,000. Unfortunately, the North Atlantic Gray whales didn’t fair as well. They are extinct. The Western North Pacific Gray whale, located in the waters north of Japan, is currently struggling in numbers, with as few as 130 remaining.

** Female grays are larger than males.

My husband making contact with an adult gray female.

** Pacific Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any creature on Earth. They travel from the cold, food-rich waters north of Alaska in the summer to the warm Baja lagoons to mate and give birth during the winter and then back again, traveling well over 10,000 miles.

** Mating takes several days and usually involves two males and one female, although it’s not unheard of for dozens of whales to congregate for a massive love-fest.

A gray calf approaches our panga.

** Gray whales can live 50-70 years, and maybe even longer. The longest living whale, however, is the bowhead. Some have been found to be over 200 years old, determined by old spearheads embedded in their flesh. Other long-living creatures are tortoises (150 years) and giant clams (220 years).

** One origin for the word ‘whale’ may come from the Old English ‘Hval’, meaning wheel—a whale’s body rolls through the water.

Sam touching an adult female. She is heavily barnacled.

** Baby gray whales gain 190 lbs. per day while nursing in the lagoon. They don’t suckle but rather bump a slit on mom’s belly which stimulates a squirt of fat-rich milk. It’s the consistency of toothpaste, making it easy for the calf to swallow in the water.

** Baby grays are born tail first and there is usually another female present who acts as a midwife.

A gray calf opens its mouth, exposing the baleen at the top of its jaw.

** There is an account of a male calf left in the lagoon for an entire year rather than migrating north. Motherless, he lived in the inlet until the grays returned. He managed to survive on what little food was present in the lagoon, although he was quite thin.

** Last year an adult gray became stranded on a sandbar while trying to leave the lagoon. Several panga boats (26-foot open skiffs used for whale viewing) were brought in and drivers, called pangueros, swirled the water so that the whale was able to dislodge himself.

My husband and his new friend, a baby gray whale.

** The whales begin arriving into the lagoon in January. Mating and birthing commences. By the end of February the males and single females begin leaving in droves to start the long swim north. The mothers with calves, however, remain as long as they can to get the young big and strong. Mom isn’t eating though and can’t remain indefinitely. March and early April are good times for human-whale interaction, as mom and babies are ‘hanging out’. It’s thought playing with the humans on the boats is a diversion for the whales.

** Gray whales are bottom-feeders, creating trenches on the sea floor. The only animal who alters their environment more are elephants.

Sam and a baby gray whale.

On our first trip into the lagoon we’re gifted with a mother and calf who seek contact with those of us on the panga. I can’t stop grinning. Giant whales are swimming right up to us. The mother, between 35 and 45 feet long, takes up residence in the water beside our small skiff. She’s huge. No photo can prepare you for what it’s like to be near something that huge. (Hint: she’s about the size of a school bus.) We’re in the open ocean—the San Ignacio Lagoon is a misnomer. Yes, it’s buffered by land, but it’s really just a giant swath of ocean, and a home for giant mammals. Have I said how big they are?

Our panga.

A baby gray swims by.

These magnificent creatures have arrived to check us out, to interact with us, to see us. I’m humbled by their trust, by their curiosity and, ultimately, by their graciousness.

My husband with an adult female. They generally stayed away, letting
the babies do all the playing, but this one was very friendly. If you look
closely you can see her eye. She's rolled to the side so she can get a good
look at my hubby. 

I'm one happy girl. This is a baby and they have the personalities of

A Pacific Gray whale calf. Beautiful.

Alex communing with a baby gray.

Mother and calf court us with swimming and diving, watching us with their soulful eyes, enjoying it when we rub their snouts. They nudge the boat and mom hovers underneath, always watchful of her baby. They twist and roll, and when mom does dive beneath the panga she keeps her fins close to her body. They are gentle, inquisitive, and playful and stay with us for at least 45 minutes. I know I’m not the only one on the boat who is utterly in love. We would have five more trips into the lagoon, but this one is blessed in a way that only hindsight can recognize.

This panga wasn't in our group, so I don't know these people. I hope they
find this photo because that baby really came out of the water for a kiss.

On one afternoon excursion, despite at least 8-10 mother-calf pairs swimming around us, not one whale comes to our boat. With several pangas floating in the area, the whales perform dozens of spy-hops—popping their heads out of the water to have a look around. We even witness a baby attempt one. Why do they choose to interact some days and not others? One possibility is the wind, which has picked up speed, the lagoon awash in whitecaps. Conditions like this may deter the mothers. This theory gains traction when, the following gusty afternoon, a baby smashes his nose into our boat while attempting to maneuver close. Ouch.

An adult female spy-hops to have a look around.

Spy-hopping. This behavior is very frequent in the lagoons, but less so
as the whales migrate north.

But I also sense that the whales have other matters that require their focus. At times, an approaching calf would be cut off by mom. Perhaps she’s telling her youngster something like, “Pay attention. Today we’re practicing our diving. You can play with the humans once you’ve completed your lessons.”

A baby gray whale, probably about 2 months old.

Sam with a baby. They often roll to the sides so they can see you.

The viewing area is in the lower section of San Ignacio Lagoon. Outside of it, the whales are to be left alone. The shallow upper lagoon is where the females give birth and care for the newborn calves. In the middle lagoon, the mothers swim with the babies to strengthen their skills. It’s in the lower lagoon that much of the social behavior occurs, and where the whales come to meet the curious and ecstatic people who’ve come from all over the world to greet them. Also, perhaps the moms need an extracurricular activity for the babies, and humans make great babysitters.

Despite all the commotion present in the viewing area—or maybe because of it—we come across a mother and calf resting. This behavior is easier to recognize than you might think because they literally don’t move from their spot in the water except to rhythmically take a breath, lolling like a couple of giant logs. Whales don’t sleep like we do, but rather rest while part of the brain remains active to insure they continue surface breathing. They also require less slumber than humans.

A tail fluke. This usually precedes a deep dive.

Alex and a baby gray.

The babies would often approach the boats from the stern and work their way
along the side until they'd visited with each person.

To have six excursions into the lagoon allows for the opportunity to observe the whales in many different moods. To me, this is the best part of spending an extended period of time with these amazing creatures. On our very last whale-watch, we have only a bit of interaction but I don’t feel disappointed. As gray whales move around us, I feel privileged to be in their world, if only for a short time. Their presence mixes with my own, and I sense their life-force, as strong and loving and playful as my own. Near the end of our time, a mom surfaces near the boat. We’re downwind of her blow spout and when she exhales, her mist coats us. Then the baby does it. Baptism by whale. I feel it clear to my bones.

A gray whale mother and calf.

Later, as I reflect upon the experience, the tears come. Having direct contact with a species such as this bridges a gap you never knew existed until you’re face to face with them, looking into their eyes, smiling ear-to-ear as the calves poke the boat and spin it in a slow circle. They’re intrigued and playful with us, as curious about humans as we are of them.

Life is ineffable and unexplainable, but the child deep within ourselves doesn’t concern herself with such existential pangs. She opens her arms wide and embraces the world in all its wonder. We are a part of the whales, and they are a part of us. And, like the child, the whales simply remind us to pay attention.

The blow holes of a baby gray. They create a heart-shaped plume.

Jean-Michel Cousteau calls gray whales “breathing planets.” A communion between humans and whales is occurring right now on this planet down in the Baja. The whales are as entranced with us as we are with them. May we make responsible decisions with the earth, for our sake and for these giants who exhibit intelligence and an uncommon compassion.

“Whale watching takes on a whole new world of meaning when the whale is watching you.”
            ~ Dr. Sylvia Earle

Recommended Reading:
Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia by Dick Russell
Sightings by Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan
Eyes of the Wild by Eleanor O’Hanlon

Until next time...


  1. Yay Christie!!! A beautiful account of a magical experience, and your pictures are right on. A pleasure to share it with you. Judy Olsen

    1. Judy,
      Thanks for stopping by! So glad we were all able to experience this. I still can't stop thinking about it. :-) All the best to you and Thor.

  2. Loved your post on the whales, especially the photos. How beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Robyn,
      I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope that by sharing this experience more people will realize how special the whales are, and how important our responsibility is to them and this planet. Have a good one!

  3. A wonderful narrative and photos of the whole experience! I loved how you so beautifully described the feelings when encountering the whales up-close and personal. I couldn't have said it better myself. Thanks, Kristy Gretchen

    1. Gretchen,
      It was so lovely to meet you and the others on the trip of a lifetime!! Cheers.

  4. Kristy,

    Wow! What an incredible adventure! I don't know much about marine life, but I know enough to understand this is not something many have the opportunity to experience. Your writing about the feelings you had while you were interacting with the whales really made this story come to life for me. Thank you for sharing the link on FB!