Who’s Watching Whom?
January through early April is the height of the whale-watching season in Baja California. During this time, some Pacific gray whales mate, while others return to give birth in shallow coastal lagoons.
Even more remarkably, some of the whales exhibit a behavior seldom seen among wild animals: they actively seek interaction with humans. Mothers nudge their babies toward boatloads of tourists, and allow them to stroke their heads, tongues and baleen. Juvenile whales frolic around boats, diving and surfacing. One, I swear, looked straight up at me as I was splashing the water alongside our panga (a Mexican skiff), gently waved his fin, and proceeded to toss about a bucket’s-worth of water on me. Whale jokes!
Pacific gray whales were hunted nearly to extinction before the International Whaling Commission enacted a ban in 1946. During the killing years these whales were known as “devil-fish,” because of their fierce attacks on whaling boats. How strange, then, that these same animals, less than 30 years later should choose to behave in a gentle and friendly way toward their former predators. They even trust us enough to let us touch their babies, something no other wild animal does.
The first known, friendly-whale encounter occurred in 1972, according to Doug Thompson, author of Whales, Touching the Mystery. A resident of Laguna San Ignacio, Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral, took his panga out to fish in the lagoon. Knowing the gray whales’ reputation for ferocity, Pachico, like other locals, took care to give them plenty of space. On this day, however, a whale approached Pachico’s boat. Frightened, he moved away, but the whale followed. Finally, Pachico gave in, knowing there was no way to escape, and that if the whale wanted to, it could smash his small boat with one flip of its massive tail. But that’s not what happened. Instead the whale gently surfaced, poking its head up, right next to Pachico’s boat. Clearly, the whale wanted to interact with him.
That night Pachico told his friends and family what had happened. They were skeptical, but Pachico convinced some of them to go out on the lagoon with him. Soon he and others experienced more friendly encounters. Over the years the news has spread, and Laguna San Ignacio has become known the world over for having the friendliest whales. In February, during the peak of the season, the number of gray whales in this lagoon averages around 250.
Many people wonder why these whales behave as they do. When other wild animals seek out humans, it’s usually for food. However, the only food these whales eat is found on the ocean’s bottom, thousands of miles away in The Bering Sea. According to marine biologist and whale researcher, Jose Angel Sanchez, there is only one explanation for the whales’ behavior: they are as curious about us, as we are about them.
A modified version of this article formerly appeared in Baja Lifestyle Magazine