GOING NATURE’S WAY
By Kate Crowley
photos by Mike Link
Bird migration is something I have talked about more than once in this column, but we know that insects (Monarch butterflies) and mammals migrate too and the ones I have wanted longest to see are the Gray Whales. Every year these magnificent marine mammals make a journey from the Arctic regions to the Baja California coast of the Pacific Ocean and then back again, following the seasons. It is a journey they have been following since time immemorial.
There are distinct reasons for this annual 10,000 mile round trip migration and like the birds it relates to abundance of food and more importantly, the reproductive cycle. It is in the far northern waters that the whales find the most abundant food – amphipods – which are small crustaceans and tube worms in the bottom sediments. As a baleen whale, instead of teeth, they have long, fringed plates hanging from either side of the mouth. While lying on their sides they draw in water and sediment and then close their mouth’s which forces the water out, trapping any food on the inside of the baleen next to their tongue. The quantity of such food required to sustain an animal weighing between 30-40 tons is hard to comprehend. By September the feeding season is drawing to a close and the whales turn south, following the coast to their wintering grounds.
For decades I’ve heard about the famous ‘nurseries’ where the grays go to have their babies. And I have longed to see it for myself. Two weeks ago that dream came true. We joined a trip with eight other people and flew from San Diego to a place called Guerrero Negro where the first of the big lagoons are located. The main one is called Scammons in English and Ojo de Liebre in Spanish. It is here that female gray whales come to birth their babies or to find a mate. There are actually two lagoons at this location. The first is where the whales enter from the Pacific Ocean and this is where most of the males hang out, hoping to successfully breed with a female. Further in is another lagoon, which is shallower and warmer – a perfect environment for a newly born baby whale.
The whales started arriving in late December and their numbers peaked in February at around 2000. Baby gray whales measure about 15 feet at birth and weigh around 1000 to 1500 pounds. While that sounds enormous, it isn’t so surprising when your mother is longer than the average school bus. Soon after birth the baby begins to nurse, but with a long curved jaw it is not the sort of suckling most mammals engage in. In this case the mother squirts the fatty (53%) milk into the babies mouth where its tongue can capture it. It will drink 50-80 pounds of milk a day and during this time the mother is not feeding at all, so it is not surprising that these adult whales lose about one fifth of their weight during the winter months.
Like all whales the grays were hunted to near extinction in the 19th and early 20th century. There used to be a population on the western side of the Pacific, but that is all gone. Those on the eastern (our) side were saved by partial protection by the International Whaling Commission in 1937 and full protection in 1947. The Mexican government established the first national whale refuge in 1972 and the species has been on the comeback ever since. It is estimated there are between 19,000 and 23,000 now.
During our trip we ventured out into the lagoons four times. The boats are wooden ‘pangas’ driven by local men. Before whale tourism began these people were fishermen and many still are. In fact, for many years they called the gray whales ‘devilfish’ because during whaling times it was not unusual for a female to ram a boat when she or her baby were attacked. So, it was a shocking event for the first fisherman who encountered a whale swimming up to his boat with no apparent animosity. He was fearful at first, but when the whale came to him a second time, he reached out and touched it and so was born the unique category of ‘friendly’ whales.
In almost all whale watching tours, there are strict rules about the distance boats must keep from the whales, but in this place, the whales come to you. Most often it is a mother and her baby. Why they are so willing to approach their once mortal enemy with no rancor is anyone’s guess, but that makes the encounter all the more special. They have chosen to interact with us. Maybe it’s just curiosity for them, but for the humans it is a peak experience.
Here is a wild animal, capable of destroying the small wooden boat you sit in and it gracefully swims next to and under the boat. At times, they surface directly next to the boat, spraying everyone with sea water that covers their blow holes. We reach out and down - hoping, trying - to touch them and sometimes we get lucky. I touched two whales and can verify that they felt like cold, wet inner tubes. Not everyone in our boat including Mike, got so lucky, but all of us were overwhelmed and humbled by the experience of being surrounded by these gentle behemoths of the sea.