A Brief History of... Baja California's Friendly Whales
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Touching a young grey whale

About the Whales

Each winter, California grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate southward along the western coastline of North America, leaving their summer grounds in Canada and Alaska and travelling thousands of miles to the warm, protected waters in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. Pregnant females are believed to leave first, and sometimes give birth to their calves along the way. (In early 1997, one injured calf was rescued from the ocean near Southern California. For the past year she has been rehabilitated at Sea World in San Diego, and they plan to release her to join this year's migration.) Once the whales arrive in the lagoons, the calves benefit from the warmth and safety of the shallow waters.

Historically, these lagoons have provided a safe environment for the adult whales to engage in courtship and breeding. These behaviors can also be observed during their southward journey along the coastline. The whale's annual round-trip migration is nearly 10,000 miles- one of the longest migrations of any animal.

The best months to see the whales along the coast in the United States are during December and January, and there are many organizations that offer whale watching tours and classes during the migration season. (See the Links page for details.)

TRAVEL TIP: Most whales arrive in the lagoons by late January, and stay until April. They can also be seen alongshore during their northward migration. Mothers and calves stay close to shore- sometimes even venturing into the surf zone- to avoid orcas and other predators. Peak times to see whales in the lagoons are February to early April. However, whales seem to prefer to begin their northward journey around the time of a full moon, so check the calendar and plan accordingly.

Mothers and calves

Female whales typically give birth to one calf every two years. At birth the calves are 14-16 feet long, and weigh between 1500-2000 pounds. They grow quickly, and by the time they begin migrating northward with the adults in late March or April, they will have doubled their weight and added a few feet to their length.

The mothers and calves are the last to leave the lagoons each year, so visitors who arrive during April may see mostly mother-calf pairs and fewer single adult whales. At times these pairs will avoid the tour boats and concentrate on swimming around the main lagoon, apparently training the calves to grow stronger and prepare for the long journey ahead. Researchers have observed mothers and calves facing into the strong incoming tides and swimming in place, as if in training on an underwater treadmill.

TRAVEL TIP: Some of the guides in San Ignacio believe late March and early April are the best times to visit the lagoon if you want to get close to the young whales. Once the older males have returned north, and the calves have matured a bit, the mothers seem less protective and allow the youngsters to approach the pangas more freely.
Pile of bleached whale bones near lagoon

Back from the Brink

From the 1840s to the 1940s, piles of bones littered the shore of the lagoon as grey whales were killed for commercial uses. Whalers discovered these sheltered breeding and nursery areas in the mid-1800s, and over the course of the next century killed thousands of whales, decreasing their population from an estimated 24,000 to only a few thousand individuals. They were finally given protection in 1946, and over the last half century their numbers have increased to over 20,000.

California grey whales are no longer considered endangered, and on June 16 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removed the eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. However, they are still protected under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, prohibiting anyone from harassing or hunting them.

Today, hikers who go exploring along the shores of the lagoon will occasionally find whale bones. Those shown in the photo were uncovered during low tide in the eastern area of the lagoon, where mothers often stay for several weeks after the birth of calves. Few males enter this area, which is far from the main lagoon near the ocean, and is quite shallow, averaging only about 15 feet deep.

The mothers and calves return to the western part of the lagoon after several weeks, to allow the calves time to interact with other adults and begin their swimming "exercises" that will prepare them for the long migration north. The mothers are quite protective, and anytime a young whale calf approaches a tour boat to be touched, the mother can be seen nearby, often floating directly beneath the pangas.
 
 
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Created: December 1997
Updated October 1999
For more information contact Lori Saldaña

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