Gray whales, once known as ‘devil fish’ due to the number of whalers they killed, have now become the most curious and ‘friendly’ whales in the world, but only in one very special area; Baja California sur.
During the 1970s in the breeding grounds off the coast of Mexico (after receiving international protection in the 30s) gray whales started to approach and interact with Mexican fishermen in their panga boats. At first terrified, the fishermen eventually realised the whales meant no harm and one touched a whale. Although 99.9% of the time it is terrible to ever have anyone touch a wild animal, this has to be the exception as you cannot MAKE whales approach boats. They do it at their own choosing and this experience of touching and looking into the eye of a wild whale is completely transformative and life-changing. It has to be one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in our amazing world.
I have worked in San Ignacio lagoon and also in Ojo de Liebre lagoon. They each have their charms. San Ignacio is less spoilt, with very little human presence in the area. However Ojo de Liebre (sometimes known as Scammon’s, but not a good name as he was a whaler that nearly made gray whales extinct) is much bigger and therefore has far more whales in it. There tend to be less boats with the whales in Ojo de Liebre, so your chances of a ‘friendly’ encounter with no other boats is greater here.
Mexico should be praised for protecting these lagoons, at least for the moment. They are part of a biosphere reserve and despite attempts to build a massive salt facility in San Ignacio, at present it remains protected. Only local Mexican fishermen are allowed to drive the boats and no private boats can drive around the whales. This gives them an incentive to care about the whales and also tourist money into the local economy. This in turn has led to less fishing in the areas during whale season, thereby less chance of entanglement for the whales.
Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list years ago as their numbers had rebounded, and although they are going through an ‘unusual mortality event’ at the time I write (early 2020’s) their population had been increasing for years and this shows that the interactions in the lagoons since the 1970’s has not done any harm. The problem appears to be in the feeding grounds off Alaska, and is probably linked to climate change as many whales have been seen emaciated. Let us hope this event ends soon and is not a continued threat to these incredible animals.
This has to be on average the greatest whale watching experience in the world.