The grey whales of Baja California are a friendly bunch - could a cetacean smooch here be the world's best wildlife encounter?
They say you always remember your first kiss. Well, I’m not absolutely sure I do (it may have been on the Isle of Man; I vomited afterwards but that was probably more to do with the ice-cream I’d just scoffed). However, I do remember kissing my first whale. It was around 3pm on Friday 28 February 2014, in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California.
Seven of us, plus our guide, were in a small panga (motorboat), bobbing around on a sunny afternoon. We’d watched jealously as a mother and baby grey whale approached a boat 100m away. Then we held our breath as they turned and headed towards us. When they were halfway, they sank from view; we stared intently at the water, eager for a sighting. Our hearts pounded as they surfaced right by our boat.
The 4.5m-long baby turned on its side, her eye peering up at us, seemingly inviting us to stroke her. Her skin was soft and smooth, like latex. The mother also rose, and we could appreciate her size: nearly 15m long. Her skin was covered in patches of barnacles, but was smooth between the outcrops. The baby kept vying for attention, and thrust her head up towards us. Kissing her seemed to be the only thing to do. It would have been rude not to.
After a few more minutes of the mutual love-in, the pair sank down, swam under our panga and headed for another boat. The encounter was so momentous that afterwards we couldn’t recall whether we had been screaming or whether we were in awed silence. We conferred and decided it had been both. I turned to one of my companions, Lindsey, to see her wiping away tears of joy. “Pinch me,” I said.
The San Ignacio Lagoon is one of four lagoons on the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula that provide a nursery for California grey whales. The whales migrate along the entire length of the North American coastline each year, feeding in food-rich Arctic waters in the summer but giving birth and breeding in the sheltered waters of Mexico between late December and April. A 16,000km round trip, it is one of the longest migrations of any mammal.
I had joined a Festival of Whales trip, led by renowned whale expert (and friend of Wanderlust), Mark Carwardine. Mark is addicted to Baja California’s whales, visiting every year. Now I could understand why. On our first evening Mark filled us in on what to expect. We were staying right on the shore in an eco-camp but would be going out into the designated whale-watching area of the lagoon twice daily in small boats.
The whale-watching is carefully monitored; there is a strict limit on the number of boats allowed in the area at any time, and a sheriff sits on a headland, recording the boats and numbers of passengers. We could stay in the whale-watching zone for only 90 minutes.
I’ve been on lots of whale-watching trips and I am used to being told that sightings are not guaranteed. But a smiling Mark stressed that this was different. Of course we would see the whales, lots of them. And what’s more they would be friendly whales. “We don’t head in the direction of every whale we see,” he said, “there are too many of them! We judge what mood they are in, and then see if they will come to us.”
Our first boat trip gave us a good taster of what to expect. Having reached the zone, we bobbed around, marvelling at the whale action going on in every direction: the blows of mothers and their calves; the arching dives, which best revealed the dinosaur-like ‘knuckles’ along the whales’ dorsal ridges; males breaching; the occasional spyhop of a curious individual, popping its head up to look around.
It was hard to know where to look, and whether to keep a camera focused or scan with binoculars. And it wasn’t just the whales keeping us entertained. Every few minutes we would catch the flash of a pelican dive-bombing the ocean, searching for fish. The occasional turtle would swim nonchalantly by. And bottlenose dolphins would pass, surprisingly introvert compared to their cousins in other parts of the world. “Please cheer when you see them,” Mark said. “They don’t usually get any attention here because they are competing with the friendliest whales in the world.”
Just then, a mother and baby whale appeared within 30m of the boat. Our pangero (boatman) grabbed a plastic scoop and started splashing the water. “Baby, baby!” he called pleadingly. “Never tap on the boat,” Mark explained. “But splashing the water is good and can attract them.” We lent over the side and tentatively splashed. “But don’t fall in...” Mark added, “there are some big sharks in here – bull sharks and great whites.”
The whales moved off, and it was already time to return to base. We were thrilled with the morning’s whale-viewing but Mark and the camp’s guides kept stressing that better was still to come. “You were too quiet!” one of the guides laughed. “The whales like noise. I know it’s not very British, but you have to scream, shout and sing.” On that afternoon’s boat trip we tried harder, splashing the water like crazy, and calling to the whales in a bid to attract them. To our astonishment it worked, with most of us achieving our first whale touch – and even kiss. Back on shore we laughed, we hugged, we cried.
It is amazing that the whales are so trusting and friendly. In 1857, American whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon found the Baja nursery lagoons and must have felt like he’d won the jackpot. The whalers would drive their boats between the mothers and calves, bringing the angry mothers close enough to harpoon. They were an easy but dangerous target, overturning boats and causing the death of some of the whalers, giving rise to grey whales being dubbed ‘devilfish’. They were said to cause more deaths than any other whale.
Their fearsome reputation wasn’t enough to save them, and the carnage continued until there were hardly any whales left. Seventeen years after discovering the nurseries, Scammon himself wrote, ‘The large bays and lagoons where these animals once congregated, brought forth and nurtured their young, are already nearly deserted’. There was some respite while the whalers went elsewhere, but then came industrial whaling and numbers plummeted again.
When the grey whales became protected in the early 1930s, there were so few left it seemed inevitable they would become extinct. But the long recovery of the species began, and numbers in the lagoons started slowly growing.
The local fishermen used to avoid the whales because of their reputation as dangerous, but in 1972 something remarkable happened. Francisco ‘Pachico’ Mayoral, a fisherman from San Ignacio, was working in the lagoon when a grey whale surfaced by his panga. It remained close, following his boat for almost an hour; eventually Pachico reached out his hand and cautiously stroked it. And so the friendly relationship between the grey whales and humans was born.
“It’s incredible that they are so trusting,” said Mark. “Whales used to be seen with harpoon scars. And yet they seem to have forgiven us.” Pachico died in October 2013. “He was a legend,” said guide Ruby who worked for him for many years. Today, rather than fear the devil fish, the fishermen introduce them to avid visitors from around the globe for what is arguably the world’s greatest wildlife encounter.
Our second morning was overcast, the light muted. The water was calm and we sat quietly, listening to the occasional whoosh of a whale spouting nearby. In every direction whales were breaching, spyhopping and fluking, but none of them close. Then the peace was shattered – a flurry of splashes and sprays just 50m away drew our attention. What looked like a large pink sea serpent rose out of the waves. Was that what I thought it was...?
It was a reminder that the whales are here to breed as well as give birth. There was also plenty of wildlife back on shore. I once drove 130km out of my way on Vancouver Island to see an osprey nesting up a very tall tree. Here I only had to walk a few hundred metres to pass an osprey nesting on a 2m-high toilet building. Peregrine falcons would also flash by overhead, while coyotes regularly patrolled the tidal flats, foraging for clams.
The bay next to the camp was home to large numbers of waders, the scene changing throughout the day with the tides. Turkey vultures would circle high in the sky, and squadrons of brown pelicans followed the coastline. Now and then a whale would breach in the distance, very often several times in a row.
In the evenings Mark would give talks. He is one of the world’s great whale experts and has witnessed years of behaviour in the lagoon. “The mothers blow bubbles for the babies to play in,” he told us. “Sometimes they blow a bubble ring under the boat, as if they want the boat to play too! But some games have a purpose. The mothers sometimes take the calves to the strongest part of the current, where the calves have to work really hard to swim. We thinks it’s to strengthen them, ready for the migration.”
Only two-thirds of calves will survive the migration up the coast; many are lost to orcas, which lurk on the migration route as it crosses California’s Monterey Bay. Mark revealed that smart mothers take the longer route, sticking close to the shore.
After a few days we began to recognise some of the whales. The whale that we had our first close encounter with had been named Julia by the team at the lodge. Her baby, Dora, was born a month before our visit, and Julia was originally super-protective. But for the past week she had been relaxed and let Dora play with the boats.
We met them on several of our trips, and they would always approach us, playfully nudging the boat with the lightest of touches. The babies are around 3.5m long when they are born, and Dora was already at least 4.5m. It is hard to tell the males and females apart; you need to see them rolled over on their backs, and look for the distance between their genital slit and their anus. Fortunately for researchers and guides, they roll on their backs a lot, seemingly craving contact.
The babies are born dark in colour but gradually lighten. They are weaned at seven months and stay with their mother for another month or two. The whales seem to have a sense of humour too. One afternoon when we headed out, a strong cold wind had picked up and the sea was choppy. We bounced through the waves and, although we caught some glimpses of spouts here and there, we began to doubt we’d have any encounters. Then a mother and calf came relatively close. We tried splashing but there was little point as we were competing with the waves themselves. And so we tried getting noisy, calling and singing.
“Here whaley-whaley!” we shouted, all stiff upper lips and inhibitions gone. Songs were then adapted to introduce the ‘w’ word. ‘Whale Meet Again’ was an obvious choice; the one we finally struck gold with, though, was ‘Whales Just Want To Have Fun’, an adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s 80s hit. The mother whale responded playfully to our out-of-tune croonings. She kept coming up alongside the boat; every now and then she would spray us with her spout. It got to the stage that we could predict it – we would see her taking deep breaths before she made a huge exhalation and completely soaked us.
The more we laughed and sang the more she seemed to enjoy it. She spyhopped several times, as if to get a good look at these strange, giggling creatures.
The days slipped by, always with the same routine of two boat trips, but every time we went out the whale encounters would be as unique and magical as our first. To get the most out of the day, we were encouraged to head to bed early at night, with the dining/meeting room closing at 10pm. I woke several times to the sound of coyotes calling out. Outside the sky was so heavy with stars that you felt you could reach out and touch them.
I would get up at first light, get myself a coffee and a chair, and watch the sun rise over the shimmering lagoon. On my last afternoon we had an encounter with a particularly friendly whale and its baby. They came to the boat again and again, seemingly never tiring of the contact.
Occasionally the pair would go to another boat, but they would always come back to us. The baby kept turning over, wanting its belly scratched. Lindsey, a nurse back in the UK, quipped, “That’s the best belly that I’ve ever rubbed!”. The mother was friendly too, coming close in order for her head to be scratched. Perhaps she had fond memories of being stroked as a baby herself.
Back at the lodge, we were on a high as we downed happy hour margaritas and swapped photos and yarns. I was leaving the next morning in advance of the group. “Back to the real world,” someone said, giving me a sympathetic look.
The real world? I had been living in an alternative reality for several days, a world where whales and humans hugged and kissed. I was now seriously questioning just which the real world was.
Lyn travelled on a Festival of Whales trip, led by Mark Carwardine and operated by Wildlife Worldwide.Dates have been set for future years for similar 'Festival' trips.
The whalewatching season runs from January to April - later in the season is best as, although there are fewer whales, there are more with calves and they are more playful.