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Published: April 10th 2016
They have been hunted to near extinction by the whalers in the nineteenth century. Many hunts were carried out in the lagoons of Baja Mexico where the whales would come during the winter to give birth. Pregnant mothers and new mothers in the lagoons were an easy target in the shallow waters of the lagoons. By the middle of twentieth century, these whales have been given protection under international law that has restored their population to a healthy level. They are no longer considered endangered. They still come to the same lagoons in Baja California for mating and giving birth. The gray whale, that had been nicknamed the Devilfish by the whalers due to its ferocious attacks on the whaling boats then, is now a friendly whale that seems to seek some connection with the humans! Tourists make their way to this remote place in the Mexico desert to get up close and personal with the new born calves that seem to have some attraction towards the tourist boats. People get to hug them, kiss them, pet them and they seem to enjoy all the attention. Mama whales actually seem to encourage their baby to approach the boat. This has been
happening in the Baja lagoons since the early 1970s when a fisherman allowed a whale to come near the boat and was surprised that the whale acted friendly. Before this incident gray whales did not enjoy a good reputation among fishermen and no fisherman allowed them to approach their boat. But this fisherman's story changed all that and a small tourist industry sprang up in the 70s allowing people to have close encounters with the gray whales.
I booked my tour through Baja Ecotours several months before the trip that was scheduled in the first week of April. It was a fly-bus tour; fly to the lagoons and come back on a bus. After spending a day in San Diego, I checked in with the group tour guide the next day around 7 am. There were about 12 people in the group including a family of 6. A van drove us across the border into Mexico. From the border, we entered Tijuana. The scene outside changed although I could spot Home Depot, Walmart, Burger King and McDonald all along the way. Ride from Tijuana to Ensenada took about two hours. The airport in Ensenada, where we flew
from, seemed like a military training facility. Our bags were checked and then loaded into a small plane. The scenic flight took about two and half hours. We flew over mountains and then desert. The flight path hug the pacific ocean all along. Our small plane landed on a gravel/dirt runway and we were welcomed by the staff of that small runway and by Norma, who was one of the guides with Baja Ecotours.
Baja Ecotours has a camp named Campo Cortez close to the mouth of the San Ignacio lagoon. This place is in the middle of nowhere in the Mexican desert. The nearest town, San Ignacio, is a couple of hours drive away on dirt roads.
The camp has about 15 cabanas or cabins that can house 2 people. They also have tents. I managed to get a cabin for myself without a single supplement fee. The camp has four marine style toilets. No flushing the tissue in them! As for showers, you are advised to take them once every two days to save water. The kitchen and dining area can hold up to 30 people. All power is made using solar and wind.
So while the sun is out, which is most of the time here, you can charge your electronics in your cabin. Coffee and cold breakfast was available at 7 am. Hot breakfast was at 8. Tortilla and beans are staple in Mexican food and hence we got them every time. There was a meat/fish dish at each meal. There was not much variety in food but maybe it is not reasonable to expect that given the place is far off from the nearest markets. However, whatever was prepared was fresh and tasty.
The cabins are right off the lagoon waters. During the high tide, usually at early morning during my trip, the lagoon area in front of the cabin would fill up. Around afternoon time, the water would recede exposing a variety of sea life. The winds would howl at night but the afternoons were relatively calm. A tent could get real noisy at night with the kind of winds we had.
We had two whale watching trips every day lasting about 2 hours each. There were a total of 7 trips to the lagoon. During the first whale watch, a baby whale approached
our panga and went underneath the boat. But non of us in the boat got to touch it. The other boat in our group seemed to have more luck. During the second trip that day, we had more luck and everyone got to pet the baby whale! Now they do not look like babies really. The calves weigh up to 2000 pounds and are 15-20 feet long around April when they would be 2-3 months old. Whales come during winter to San Ignacio lagoon and a few other lagoons for mating and giving birth. Gray whales make one of the longest migrations among mammals, travelling around 12000 miles round trip from the summer feeding waters in Alaska to the winter breeding lagoons in Baja and then back to Alaska during Spring. They migrate along the pacific coast and thus it is easy to spot them all along US west coast. The baby whale feeds on mother's milk which is more than 50% fat. There is not much food for adult whales in the Baja lagoons but I was told that feeding behavior is occasionally observed in these lagoons. So while the calf is gaining weight, the mama whale is losing
hers. All whales except the mama and baby whales start migrating northwards in Feb. They arrive in Baja lagoons in December, frolic around, mate and then start heading north. One possible reason they take such a long migration from the nutrients rich water of Alaska is to avoid the predatory Orca whales that are known to attack the Gray whale calves.
Gray whales are bottom feeders. They scrape off mud from the ocean floor and then squeeze out the mud and water with the help of baleen which are hanging from their upper jaw. The krill and other crustaceans then get trapped inside and are gulped by the whale. It is an interesting fact though that the biggest mammals on the planet including the blue whale feed on the smallest of critters in the ocean.
Gray whales have barnacles all over their skin. They also have lice that is a parasite that feeds on its skin. Barnacles are one way of identifying a whale as no two whales would have the same pattern of barnacles. An adult whale can carry a lot of these parasites.
Next day we had two more trips. The baby whale
approached our panga on each of these trips and we got to touch it! Quite an experience it is to touch a whale calf in the wild! We would sing and make noises to attract their attention. Lorna, another tour guide, would bring her guitar and sing.
The fifth trip next morning turned out to be the best of the trip. A baby whale approached our boat and stayed near it for 20-25 minutes! That's a lot of play time for the baby whale. It showed us its baleen. The panga operator, Paco, kept throwing water on her mouth. Apparently they like that. Apparently they also like being massaged on their baleen. All this while mama whale kept a close eye on the proceedings and just rested near the boat with its fluke just out of the water. It is an astounding fact that the whale species that was hunted to near extinction by whalers of nineteenth century now seem to seek some connection with us humans. Mama whales, who are very protective, have been bringing their newborns to the boats in the lagoons for the last 40 years or so. San Ignacio lagoon may be the only place
on the planet where this phenomenon has been happening on a regular basis for the past few decades.
After nearly 4 days at the camp, it was time to bid adieu to the baby whales and their moms and head back to San Ignacio town. A 2 hour dirt and paved road drive later, we arrived at the sleepy small town. We had dinner at Tootsies. Then we had to wait for the ABC mexico bus. After a long wait, we boarded the bus at 9 in the night. 10 min into the ride and we were stopped by Mexican army for baggage inspection. This can happen anywhere along the long drive to Tijuana. Luckily we were stopped only once for baggage inspection. The overnight bus drive seemed like an ordeal to a few in our group. Border crossing took a while and waiting for the pre-arranged vans took even more. Vans finally arrived an hour late and dropped us at the Handlery hotel in San Diego.
Before I left the camp, the next tour group had started arriving. Among them was someone who was making this trip the 17th time. I guess petting
baby whales can get addictive!
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