Whale Watchin’ – Don’t chase the Gs

Days 4 & 5- San Ignacio Lagoon

We crashed a big Spring Break party. Not the week long event of music and dancing with thousands of people, but with over 250 Pacific Grey Whales coated with barnacles and lice. DJ gone fishing. Contrary to humans, these guys don’t have bosses, teachers and clients to please. They live it up all summer at San Ignacio Lagoon until the party’s over late in March.

The lagoon is divided into sections; Mother Greys giving birth and nursing in the shallow part. Mothers and their calves, sometimes juveniles swim together in the middle of the lagoon, calves trailing behind. They develop a strong bond here. Once they mature, they move to the lower part of the lagoon, socialize with the rest of the pack and are on the prowl.

The roundtrip migration covers over 12,500 miles every year making it the longest mammal migration beginning September from the Bering and Chuckchi Sea in the Arctic to the warm temperatures of Baja by mid January. Pregnant ones give birth, single ones looking to mate while humans in the background scream in joy, cry their eyes out or look intense.

They are active in February and March, the best times to be in their presence. The single ones are usually the first to leave late in March, sometimes moms and their calves hang around until May depending on how fast their calves get the hang of it. It takes about 4 to 6 weeks of teaching. Later, they go back up to the Arctic. Feed. Repeat.

At 7 am, we sailed into San Ignacio Lagoon, the color of the water ranging in shades of turquoise to dark blue, sunshine glitter all over. Omnipresent whale blows and conspicuous barnacle colonies piggybacking over the Greys seen from the surface.

We spent the entire day ( 8:30am to 5pm) on and off pangas cruising in the lagoon. The Greys also hung around the main boat, rubbing themselves against its underside. The pangas are driven by “pangaderos” who devote their lives to protect the Greys. The story goes back to the 1970s. May have been twisted a bunch. I don’t know. A fisherman looked a Grey straight in the eye then touched it and boom- they connected. This powerful story moved the pangaderos so much that they promised to protect the whales for the rest of their lives.

At first, the swells made it difficult to spot the Greys from the pangas. We patiently waited until the clouds disappeared, the Greys began to surface and approach our panga. Blue skies and friendly whales for the rest of the day. We watched them mate, breach a ton, spy hop, flap their fins and surface towards us for scratching and rubbing. Moms were teaching their calves to approach boats and trust humans. They pine for human attention otherwise they quickly roll to another boat.

On day 2, we were out socializing with them from 6am until 5pm. It wasn’t just the physical features that were cute, but their forgiving and trusting nature that exposed the beauty of nature. Despite being hunted to extinction in the 1800s, the forgiving Greys still trust humans and approach boats. First Charles Melville Scammon hunted them in “Laguna Ojo de Liebre” 80 miles north of San Ignacio, one of the three whale sanctuaries in the Baja Peninsula and now the “world’s largest saltworks”. His nephew Captain Jared Poole discovered San Ignacio and hunted them decades later. Fortunately, despite being a big salt factory, San Ignacio escaped a proposed salt production factory project. Now, the world’s only whale breeding ground unaffected by human’s desire to enhance the flavor of their meals.

Hunting paused during WW2 when Japan and the US were up in arms then resumed until 1971 when the US officially banned whaling. Meanwhile, the IWC, no, not  the watch, but the International Whaling Commission started out in 1946 and do their best to protect these mammals.

At sun set, we sailed south towards Magdallena Bay, the third breeding spot in the peninsula, known to be less eventful as San Ignacio and Ojo de Liebre. We’ll find out.

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