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A giant gray back breaks the surface, slowly rising like an island being born, and the first crack of the blow skims across the water like a gunshot. A lethargic torpedo heads directly towards me, and when the great head rises at the last second, I am eye to eye with a forty-ton gray whale.
For me, this is another day at the office, surrounded by forty-five-foot wild animals, pushing my twenty-foot boat around, spraying me with their blow as they jockey for position to be petted, and generally behaving like adolescents on spring break.
I am a marine naturalist in San Ignacio lagoon, Baja, Mexico, and this is where descendants of some of the oldest living creatures on Earth gather annually to work their magic.
San Ignacio is one of three isolated lagoons where gray whales come to teach their newborns calves the fine art of being a whale, and these lagoons are the only known places on Earth where wild animals actively seek out human contact on a regular basis, Being among the largest creatures on Earth, it is all the more spectacular.
I have often had adult whales approach with open mouths to have their tongue and baleen rubbed, and I have had my arm in their mouths up to my shoulder. They also like to get underneath to rub against the hull and will sometimes pick me up, almost completely out of the water. Sometimes they roll upside down to put the boat on their belly for a rub. None of these behaviors has ever been hostile, and I have never felt in danger or even slightly threatened. They are friendly, curious, and docile. Lacking arms or hands, I believe, they simply enjoy the sensation of touch, especially being petted, because they often respond to stroking by pushing against one’s hand.
For those offended by this interaction with wild animals, I will add that everyone in the lagoon scrupulously follows the regulations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and never approaches within 100 yards. We always allow the whale to approach us, and they control the situation. They come to us because they want to.
Eschrichtius robustus, commonly known as the Pacific gray whale, is one of the most enigmatic of the eight-some whale species we share our planet with, and one that has, since before recorded history, made an annual migration of up to 14,000 miles from the Chukchi and Bering seas north of Alaska to the waters of southern Baja. These are called the eastern stock.
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There is also a western stock of grays off the coast of Asia, but pollution and whaling has placed them on the verge of extinction. Their current numbers are below 100 animals, and this is not sufficient to keep the population viable much longer.
Out of the current eastern stock of approximately 19,000 to 20,000 whales, maybe 1,500 to 2,000 will make the entire round-trip, feeding on krill and amphipods (tiny shrimplike crustaceans) in the summer to build a layer of blubber that acts as both an energy source and insulation for their epic swim. The rest will string out along the western coast of the Americas, wherever they find food.
They are baleen whales, meaning they have a brushy curtain that grows down from the roof of the mouth, made of keratin (like human hair and fingernails). This acts as a filter for these bottom-feeding creatures, which scoop up tons of amphipod-rich silt and push the excess water out with their tongue. The food is trapped on the backside of their baleen, and they lick it off to swallow.
Baleen whales have a double blow hole, and the exhalation of used air combined with water collected in the indentation of the hole produces their “blow,” a heart-shaped mist, by which they are easily spotted.
Most of the calves are born on the journey south after a thirteen-month gestation. They are twelve to fourteen feet long, and weigh 1,000 to 15,000 pounds, gaining up to 150 pounds a day on a diet of mother’s 53-percent-fat milk. The baby does not attach to the mother to nurse. This milk is so thick it is squirted into the water, where it does not readily disperse. The baby then laps it up. Nursing mothers may lose up to a third of their body weight in the lagoon. They are not known to echo-locate as orcas do, but it is thought they have underwater geography imprinted in their DNA after centuries of navigating the Pacific “Rim of Fire.” They do vocalize, but their low guttural sounds are not easily heard by human ears.
Calves will nurse about seven months and then will spend four to six weeks in the lagoon, learning how to survive alone in the vast ocean. Unlike other whales, Pacific gray whales do not travel in pods. After mating, the male takes off. If the mother dies, an unweaned calf will probably also die, as grays are not known to adopt orphans.
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Young whales learn by imitating their mothers, which show them how to breach, or thrust their entire body out of the water. This removes barnacles, but is also a form of communication and sheer act of joy. Lobtailing is when they smack their tail flukes on the water, another form of communication. Mothers will sometimes smack their pectoral fins on the water to get a youngster’s attention. When they transition from milk to krill, she will show them how to scoop up bottom silt and filter it out to eat.
Because, at three to five knots average speed, they are the slowest swimming of all the whales, Pacific gray whale hug the coast during their migration, using natural cover such as rocks and kelp beds for protection.
This slow movement also accounts for the great masses of barnacles they collect, which in turn shelter three species of lice indigenous to this whale. They often wrap themselves in kelp as an anchor while sleeping. Breathing is a voluntary act carried out by half the brain that remains active while the other half rests, much as in a dolphin. A mother will “spyhop” (stick her head out of the water to look around) before sleeping.
Almost immediately upon entering the lagoon, a mother will make the newborn swim until it can go no further. She will then spyhop the horizon, estimate the time it would take a predator to reach her, and that is how long she will allow her calf to sleep, usually on top of her back or supported by a pectoral fin. Sometimes she will roll over and place the baby on her stomach. After this short rest, it’s back to work, conditioning for that marathon swim back north.
The mother is very protective and affectionate. As the calf grows stronger she will allow it to approach boats. A whale approaching boats in Mexico will not usually do so on the ocean. This is a learned behavior that mother passes to her offspring, and not all whales are “friendly.” Out of the approximately 250 to 300 whales that enter San Ignacio annually, maybe 50 will be “friendlies."
Like all youngsters, baby whales love to play, and they do respond to an audience. I have had them try to lunge right into my boat in their exuberance, and watched them rolling with glee or playing “keep away” with a runner of sea kelp. Youngsters, like their human counterparts, are endlessly curious and love to be petted, but also like human children, have little depth perception or coordination at first, so they often slam into the boat in their exuberance. To the touch, their skin feels like pliable rubber.
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Mothers are clearly proud of their handiwork and will bring a baby up to us on her back to show it off. There are many theories for this behavior, the most common being simply that over centuries the whales have learned they are safe here. After more than a decade as a marine naturalist, that is what I believe. I spend about six hours a day on the water with these animals and know many by sight. (They are easily identifiable from their coloring, which ranges from black to light gray, with mottled tones in between, and unique scarring, mostly from propeller hits and occasional orca bites.)
I have often had a “friendly” follow me throughout the day, covering miles, and then return the next morning to seek my company. This friendliness sometimes gets them hit by propellers, but their thick coating of blubber protects them, and unless the cut is very deep, they do not seem to feel it.
Pacific gray whale mating is a common sight and one of the most unusual events in the natural world. Several amorous young males will line up to await their turn with the female in estrus, who will couple with as many as two dozen suitors in a day. Each one ejaculates hundreds of gallons of semen, washing out the efforts of its predecessor.
It is not uncommon to see several juvenile males all waving their six foot organs in the air, prehensile, bright pink, and weighing hundreds of pounds, but not necessarily trying to mate. Like most red blooded young males, they are simply playing a game of mine is bigger than yours.
After a month in the lagoon, the young whales may have gained as much as 7,000 pounds and are ready to begin the long swim north to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. If a youngster survives to adulthood, he or she may live sixty to eighty years, reaching sexual maturity at about seven years.
Fossilized remains suggest the ancestors of the Pacific gray whale walked the Earth on four legs about six million years ago, and today’s whales still have a vestigial pelvic bone. Both humans and the whales are warm-blooded mammals that give live birth and nurse their young. We both have hair and breathe air. In the womb, a human fetus has weblike hands that resemble flippers, while a whale fetus has individual fingerlike digits. In its pectoral fins a whale has each and every bone that a human has from shoulder to fingertips.
Only two creatures on Earth are born with a soft spot of the top of the skull to allow for brain growth: humans and whales.
Gray whales have occupied this Earth far longer than we have, and even though they are still hunted for food, they come to us in friendship.
As one who knows them firsthand, I hope they will be patient with us, until we reach the point of being able to communicate—and finally learn which species is more civilized.