Waiting For The Whales

Nov 21, 2017 - 2:00 PM

As you read this, one of earth’s great mammal migrations is underway: gray whales are swimming day and night from Alaska to Mexico. Their journey will take them 5,000 to 6,000 miles at roughly five miles an hour (75 miles a day).

The largest gray whales are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh upwards of 80,000 pounds. All summer these toothless creatures have been feeding on the bottom of the icy Bering and Chukchi seas, rolling on their right sides, and sucking in sediments. Through hundreds of coarse keratin or baleen plates on their upper jaws, they filter the muddy water for tiny, nutrient-rich crustaceans called amphipods, leaving long trails of mud. They eat an astonishing one ton of amphipods a day.

Soon, around Christmastime, pregnant mothers—the first of the migrants—will begin arriving in the warm-water calving lagoons and bays on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur. The three most important are Laguna Ojo de Liebre to the north, and Magdalena Bay and Laguna San Ignacio to the south.

Waiting for the whales at San Ignacio is Angie Mulder, who for two decades has operated San Diego-based Baja Discovery, an extraordinary seasonal safari camp that welcomes visitors fascinated with the returning whales.

(Photo: Baja Discovery)

“We have such a gorgeous spot,” says Mulder. “To sit here and look out and know that it’s always been this way is awe-inspiring.”

Mulder inherited her love of the austere but exquisitely beautiful Baja from her late aunt, Karen Ivey, who gave up a career as a Chicago social worker to lead natural-history trips here. Ivey watched with joy as the ­population of gray whales—with national and international protection—was restored to historic abundance. In 1994, the gray whale became the only whale species removed from the U. S. Endangered Species list.

“My aunt was a special woman,” Mulder says. “She was the first to employ local people here as guides and cooks. She gave them a living. They respected her for that.”

San Ignacio is special because today itis part of the internationally recognized and protected El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. Fully two-thirds of the 17-mile-long lagoon is off-limits to tourists, leaving the whales undisturbed.

Mulder says the peak time for experiencing the spectacle is mid-February through mid-March, when hundreds of nursing, calving, and mating gray whales bring the bright shallows to life.

(Photo: Baja Discovery)

Males and females without new calves are the first to depart. Pregnant females and nursing mothers with their newborns stay, waiting until their calves are ready for the long journey, from late March to late April. A few linger into May with their young calves, which at birth are about 15 feet long and weigh some 2,000 pounds.

In the Pacific Northwest springtime, when rare bright days provide a clearing through the sheets of gray rain drenching green stands of cedar and fir, the returning whales can be seen from off the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. They are heading back, as they have for thousands of years, to their summer homes in the Arctic.    


A Bit of History

During the winter of 1855–56, a Maine whaling captain named Charles Melville Scammon sailed south from San Francisco to Baja California. He found gray whales mating and giving birth in Magdalena Bay and began killing them for their boiled-down oil. His harpooners knew that if they targeted the playful and vulnerable 15-foot calves, the fiercely protective 50-foot mothers would not flee. They would ram the harpoon boats trying to protect their young. For this they were called “devil-fish.”

Scammon was not only a whale and seal hunter, but also a naturalist and the author of an 1874 book, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America: Described and Illustrated, Together with an Account of the American Whale-fishery. Like books of similar genre by fellow New England authors Melville and Thoreau, it was a financial failure at the time. Today, it’s considered a classic.