A Reader's Special Report by Susan Sylvan with Images by Toby Mailman
This is another in our series of wildlife adventures reports from our readers. Have YOU been on a wildlife adventure? Tell us about it.
Grey Whale Watching
Who: From 'tweens to seniors
What: Grey Whale migration
Activities: Grey whale watching from small guided open boats.
When: December-April Peak: January
Where: Three lagoons in Baja California Sur, Mexico:
Laguna Ojo de Leibre
San Ignacio Laguna
Why Responsible: In 1990 Mexico made a deal to open the the world's largest salt mine here. In 2000, the Mexican president, bowing to environmental concerns, halted the deal in favor of eco-tourism.
How: Fly into La Paz, Loreto, or Cabo San Lucas.
Susan Sylvan: At the age of 65, Susan retired from her career as a science and social studies high school teacher to take up a new challenge a world away with the Peace Corps. She spent two years abroad first in Kyrgyzstan then moving on to Pakistan where she taught English to college students. Today, Susan lives in New York City, a short ride away from three international airports and the next adventure.
Toby Mailman: Toby got the travel bug early, traveling to Europe on her own for the first time at age 19, and has had the good fortune to visit many exotic locations since then. Toby lived in Nicaragua and Guatemala for a total of four years, working as a writer and translator, and for British Oxfam. She is a clinical social worker now living in New York City, and plans to continue her travels for the foreseeable future.
January is Peak Grey Whale Time in Baja California
I went to Baja California in January to see the grey whales that migrate to the ocean lagoons of Mexico where they mate and have their babies. Baja California (Mexico) is the peninsula that runs down from California along the Pacific. There are three ocean lagoons on the west coast of the Baja peninsula: Scammon's Bay or Laguna Ojo de Leibre, San Ignacio Laguna, and Magdelena Bay.
The Weather is Perfect Where Desert Meets the Sea
The weather was perfect: cool at night and tee shirt warm in the day. The Baja peninsula is desert; there is very little rain, cactus is the vegetation. We stayed in small local hotels where the service was gracious and the food good.
Grey whales migrate from the Arctic down to this area in Mexico and are here from December until March when they head back up the coast to their feeding grounds in the Arctic. These mammals do not eat on the journey south nor do they eat while they are in Baja.
The grey whales are visible from the coast of the Pacific (US) states during their migration and are impressive when viewed from headlands on their route -but being in a small boat in among these huge animals is genuinely awesome to use an overused word.
Being In the Midst Of These Giant Creatures is Truly Wonderful
We were in the midst of these gigantic creatures in their own environment, and it was truly wonderful. They are just there living their lives and mostly ignoring you.
Being in the whale's environment, wearing a life jacket, made me feel vulnerable and in awe of their power. This small open fishing boat with me and ten others could easily have been flipped into the water by one of the whales just bumping it. But ever since the time that killing these animals was banned, and whale watching tourism begun, there has never been a case of a boat being upset. At times the whales are curious and swim under and around the boats but never dump them.
The boats, or pangas, that are allowed by regulations onto the lagoon are small; they contain no more than 12 passengers. Adult whales are the size of a school bus (40-50 feet); the babies are somewhat smaller but not by much. Our boat was approximately half the length of the whales.
There Are Whales No Matter Where You Look
Some whales were evident just by the spouts on the horizon (these are air-breathing mammals), and others were popping up out of the water and splashing down; this is called Spy-hopping. They did not come up out of the water close to the boats but, we could clearly see them when they did it. They frequently spy-hopped multiple times. Why?? It did look like fun.
Mother Whales and Their Curious Babies
There were flukes when they went down. Sometimes you could see mothers and babies rolling around each other. Our guide told us that if a whale came close to the boat, it was usually a baby who was curious and was encouraged by its mother to explore. When a pair did get close to the boat, the mother did not seem anxious; she was just out there swimming along in the midst of these strange wooden objects.
Before You See A Whale, You Will Hear It Breath
When they are close to the boat, you can hear them breathing before you can see them. The breathing sounds like the biggest yoga exhale possible. It is the same sound we would make if we had lungs ten times our size. The exhale of the babies was proportionally smaller than the mothers' and is easily distinguishable when they are close to the boat.
At times, a whale would come up so close that you could touch them. Some of the members of the group were able to touch a whale, but this did not happen in the boat I was in. We were told not to touch their eyes or their blowholes which are sensitive. I envy those who got to touch a whale..maybe next time.
(Editors Note: This is one of those very rare times when touching wildlife, in this case the grey whales, has proven to be OK, as long as the rules are followed and they come to you)
The Mexican Government Works Hard to Protect
It was heartening to see that the Mexican government well controls the human activity in the area of these lagoons. The government monitors the size and number of the boats allowed in the lagoon when the whales are there. The mouth of the lagoon is also guarded to make sure no boats from the ocean come into the area. All of these rules are to protect the whales and to keep their environment safe for the mothers and babies. The tour guide explained the rules and the boats we were in were checked by government agents when we left the dock.
My time with the whales was amazing. My close encounter with these big mammals made me aware of the wide variety of life that shares this plant with us. We all need air and food and a place to have babies. We are the species that has to work to protect the others.
For anyone with interest in the natural world, it is well worth going to see these mammals. To know that the Mexican government is doing a good job protecting them made me feel the world was not in total disarray.
Who Would Love this Grey Whale Adventure?
People Were There To Help
There were no kids on this trip...it was Road Scholar. I would say kids 10 and up would like it. It is quiet, and you sit and listen and look for a couple of hours at a time. Am not sure about the attention span of younger kids.
Mobility: We had people with canes who got in and out of the boats. People were there to help.