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A Whale of a Tale

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Animal Updates | Mammals

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

In Focus

Every year gray whales migrate from the cold waters off the Alaskan coast to their breeding grounds in the warm waters of Baja California. Alyssa Pacaut, our senior manager of membership, recently joined a group of Aquarium members on a whale watching trip with Baja Expeditions.

“Breeding season is like the biggest party of the year for gray whales,” explained Jose, our guide from Baja Expeditions. It was a sunny afternoon in Baja California, and we had just completed a day-long journey to arrive at camp.

Plant with ocean in the background

Situated on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California, the San Ignacio Lagoon is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whales have migrated to this area during the winter months for hundreds of years.

White board with a day schedule

Since it’s a protected area, there are strict restrictions on the time and frequency of whale watching. Each touring group is limited to two 90-minute sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Even though we had arrived in mid-March toward the end of a breeding season, there were still plenty of whales inhabiting the lagoon. The population mainly consisted of mothers, their calves, and a few juveniles that had extended their stay, as well.

Whale tail

While I was prepared to see a few whales during this trip, I had no idea just how many we would see in a three-day time span. At one point, we had four mother-calf pairs around our boat at the same exact time!

During each session, we observed the whales exhibiting a variety of behaviors. Many of the babies could be found playing with their mothers. The calf would surface and roll about, with the mom often nudging them gently in one direction or another.

Gray whale coming out of the water

One time, we were observing some whales from one side of the boat when another whale suddenly came up spyhopping on the other side of the boat. We all joked that there was so much to see that we would need treatment for whiplash.

We were also lucky enough to see the gray whales breach. There is nothing like seeing an animal as big as a bus propel itself out of the water!

It’s not 100 percent clear why gray whales breach, although some researchers hypothesize it is a social behavior that attracts mates. Since it takes quite a lot of energy to breach multiple times, it’s possible this behavior is used to draw attention to their strength and virility.

Gray Whale baby up close

When viewed up close, you can see that the babies have skin that is a smooth gray color, while the adults have skin with a mottled appearance due to parasitic barnacles and tiny light-colored crabs called whale lice. One juvenile fondly known as Moby was covered with so many parasites that he was practically white!

Gray Whale spraying water from blow hole

Another interesting feature of the gray whale is that they have a double blowhole. As the whales surface to exhale, they spray water into the air above the surface. If it’s a calm day out on the water, you can sometimes see a v-shaped spray when they blow, caused by that double blowhole. Many of the whale lovers on the boat likened this shape to a heart.

Even when we were on land, whales were always top of mind. In the quiet of night and early mornings, you could sometimes hear a whale’s blow from our tents. One of our fellow campers woke up early and observed a whale breaching twelve times in a row. Not a bad way to start the day!

We also spent our evenings learning about gray whales during natural history talks with our guide. During one of these lectures, we discussed the decline of the gray whale population due to human activity.

Illuminated tent at night with stars above

In the past, the commercial whaling industry negatively impacted the population. However, modern-day activities are taking their toll on gray whales as well. The Western North Pacific population that migrates to Baja California is affected by seismic activity of oil and gas rigs, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and change in habitat due to climate change.

Gray whales are truly a majestic mammal. Getting the chance to see them up close and in their natural element was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve never said the word “wow” so much in such a short time period, but being close to one of the largest animals in the world will have that effect.

Though previously a whale newbie, I now consider myself a whale lover and am inspired to advocate for ocean conservation on their behalf. Seeing these incredible creatures in the wild has left me with a deeper understanding of why it is vitally important to protect our marine habitats.

Photos were taken by Perry Hampton, a talented member and photographer who also moonlights as the Aquarium’s vice president of husbandry.

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