The Pacific Gray Whales Of Baja

By Kristy McCaffrey
“This species of whale manifests the greatest affection for its young…”
~ Charles Melville Scammon, 1874
Look behind you…a gray whale wants to say hello.
In early April, I had the opportunity to visit Laguna San Ignacio, an inlet located on the Pacific coast side of Baja Sur California, Mexico. A remote, undeveloped area with miles of salt flats, it boasts one of the most amazing interactions happening today between humans and wildlife. It’s here that Pacific gray whale mothers bring their calves directly to small skiffs, introduce themselves, and visit. Touching the slick and rubbery skin is a given, but if you’re lucky you can plant a kiss on a whale snout, or perhaps run a hand along the baleen when a whale opens its mouth for you.
At Laguna San Ignacio, a group of Kearneys prepare to meet the whales.
(Pictured–from left: my uncles, Pat Kearney and Kevin Kearney,
my cousin Terry Kearney, my aunt Barbara Kearney and my mom,
Patty Kearney)
A Pacific gray whale calf.
A gray whale calf with my Uncle Kevin.
A gray calf with my dad, Rick Kearney.
My mom makes contact with a baby gray whale.
How did this come to be?
In the latter part of the 1800’s, gray whales, known as “devil-fish,” were considered extremely dangerous. Within Laguna San Ignacio, an American whaling fleet led by Charles Melville Scammon slaughtered hundreds—the lagoon a haven for the whales to mate and give birth each winter. Scammon, a daring and innovative whaler who became the first Western man to find a safe passage into the inlet, was, without a doubt, responsible for bringing the gray whale to the brink of extinction. Ironically, he has also greatly influenced what we know about the creatures today, with his meticulous documentation of the grays’ migration patterns, anatomy, and behaviors.

Charles Melville Scammon.
Rendering of a gray whale.
A Pacific gray whale mother approaches the boat.
In 1972, however, a new relationship was forged between man and mammal. A local Mexican fisherman, Pachico Mayoral, was in his skiff in Laguna San Ignacio one February day, fishing for grouper, when a gray whale surfaced beside him. He was, understandably, fearful. But after a time, when the animal didn’t leave, he felt compelled to put his hand into the water. The whale rubbed against him. And so began an unprecedented communion between humans and whales.

Pachico Mayoral–friend, guardian, and advocate of the gray whale.
He was the first human to touch a whale in its natural habitat.
He passed away on Oct. 22, 2013, but his sons continue
to give tours in Laguna San Ignacio.
A baby gray beside its mother.
Coincidentally, it was during this time that the Mexican government decreed the San Ignacio Lagoon habitat a refuge for migratory birds and wildlife. The same year, the United Nations voted for a resolution calling for the end of worldwide whaling and the U.S. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed with gray whales on the list; they would remain there for the next twenty years, leading to a dramatic recovery of the species. (Unfortunately, gray whales in the North Atlantic have been extinct since the 1800’s, likely due to whaling.)

A baby rolls to its side.
Why the whales make contact remains a mystery. Experts believe it’s a learned behavior, handed down from mothers to calves, though a legend abounds that it was Pachico who taught them. Dr. Jim Sumich, who has studied gray whales for decades, says, “Friendly encounters are not gray whale behaviors, they are gray whale-human interactions.”
The grays are the most heavily-barnacled of all whales, carrying up to a ton of the limestone-shelled creatures on
their bodies. Barnacles don't harm the whales, but sea lice–parasites that feed on the skin–can.
A silvery fish called a topsmelt will groom the whales in the calving lagoons, ridding them of these unwanted
Gray whales, while not the largest of the whale species (blue whales take that honor), have the longest migration of any animal on earth. During the course of a year they travel from three warm lagoons in central Baja (in addition to Laguna San Ignacio, they are also found in Magdalena Bay and Laguna Ojo de Liebre, although San Ignacio is reputed to have the highest percentage of “friendly” encounters) to Arctic feeding grounds near the Bering Strait, covering, at a minimum, 10,000 miles roundtrip. A 30-ton whale will expend enough energy on the return trip to shed 8-tons of its blubber. Gray whales have no teeth, rather they feed primarily on tiny, shrimplike amphipods by straining the food through a fringed curtain of baleen—long bristles made of the same substance as human fingernails—which hangs from the roof of the mouth.

Gray whales have the longest migration of
any animal on earth.
The baleen is visible in the upper jaw.
Calf and mom.  A mother gray will sometimes support her youngster
from underneath, showing off her baby to the appreciative
and awe-struck humans.
Gray whales, with lifespans anywhere from 55 to 70 years long, reach maturation between 5 to 11 years of age. Pregnancies last 12-13 months, so females generally give birth every other year. It’s believed they migrate to the Baja lagoons as a protective measure to care for their young, although some travel simply to mate, departing soon after. Orcas, the grays natural predator, won’t enter the inlets, for reasons still not entirely understood although it’s been suggested that the shallow lagoon impedes echolocation, thus making the killer whales too vulnerable.

My Aunt Barbara greeting mom (on right) and baby (in the center).
Grays hug the shore during their migrations, and as a result have been seen by more people, in more places, than any other leviathan. The whale-watching multi-million dollar industry began in the 1950’s, but the grays remained aggressive toward researchers and fisherman throughout that time, especially in the lagoon, frequently ramming boats or smashing them with a flick of their tail flukes.

Only two whales have ever been in captivity, and they were both grays. In the ‘90’s, on two separate occasions, gray calves were kept for several months and then released into the wild.
A gray whale mother.
Whale watching is strictly regulated within Laguna San Ignacio by the Mexican government. Only twelve boats can be out at any given time, and none are allowed in the southern inlet, or Upper Lagoon, where calves are nurtured. Only in the open stretch of the north inlet are the skiffs permitted to approach whales, but they must remain within a thirty meter radius. And only two boats may circle any one whale at a time. It’s always the grays’ choice whether to approach a boat. On windy, choppy days they stay away, because it’s said they know they would damage the skiffs.

The v-shaped blow spout is visible. It releases a heart-shaped plume.
Terry Marcer, owner of Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast (located in the town of San Ignacio), shared the story of a woman determined to touch a whale one season. It was January, which is generally not the best time for interaction because males are more interested in mating and many of the females have given, or are about to give, birth. As a large whale swam past the skiff, this woman leaned so far out that she fell into the water. The boat’s driver panicked and sped away. However, the whale very calmly surfaced, and supported the woman until the driver gathered his wits and returned to retrieve her.
It was a challenge to balance taking video and photos while
at the same time enjoying their company.
Homero Aridjis—author, poet, and Latin America’s leading environmental activist who, in the year 2000, was directly involved in defeating the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi from extracting salt from the lagoon and thereby saved the gray whale’s refuge and important birthing habitat—has this to say about encountering this magnificent beast, “It is a magic touch, a communication of another kind, beyond species, where you are speaking in some supersensory way. You can feel them. And you feel they can feel you. How people become transformed because they touch a whale is inexpressible. You can’t explain why.”
Interacting with a wild whale is a life-changing and sacred endeavor.
On this April day, I’m privileged to meet several mother-calf pairs, humbled by their curious and gracious natures. The babies generally arrive first at our 26-foot long panga, a Baja open boat similar to a dory, while mom waits in the water just beyond. But soon, she approaches as well, hovering beneath our skiff, blowing geysers of water onto us. But the wooing isn’t complete until she rolls to the side and looks me in the eye.
The eye of a gray whale.
I’m spellbound and utterly captivated.
They remind us what we’ve always known—we are a part of the whales, and they are a part of us.
And the whales came out
to catch a glimpse of God
between the dancing furrows of the waters.
And God was seen through the eye of a whale.
~ Homero Aridjis
Works Cited
American Cetacean Society. <>.
Russell, Dick. Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia. Island Press, 2001.


Leave a Comment:

Anonymous says April 25, 2014

Absolutely amazing story and pictures, thank you for sharing such a spiritual experience

Lynn Lovegreen says May 1, 2014

Awesome blog post! I had the privilege to see whales in a lagoon near yours, and it was truly amazing.

Kristy McCaffrey says May 5, 2014

Thanks for stopping by Lynn. Interacting with the gray whales really is extraordinary, isn't it?

Kristy McCaffrey says May 5, 2014

Hi Anonymous–I'm glad you enjoyed the post!