Baja Whale Watching, Baja Blue Whales

Baja Blue and Pilot whales

When vacationing by small ship on a Sea of Cortez cruise, there is always the exciting possibility of spotting short-finned pilot whales and blue whales. These species offer a great comparison between the two classifications of the order Cetacea. Ceta means whale in Latin. Short-finned pilot whales belong to one suborder, the toothed whales. Although a type of dolphin, they are called whales because they are large. Males weigh one to four tons and are 16 to 18 feet long; females are several feet shorter. They often find fish and squid by using sonar. This explains why they have bulbous foreheads, called melons, which focus echolocation clicks. They make a sound like rubbing your hand over a balloon. A 1,500-pound animal will eat 60 pounds of squid per day. They may dive to 1,600 feet in coastal submarine canyons. Pilot whales live in extended family groups of 12 to more than 30 individuals. They are black like five other large dolphins species and are sometimes referred to as blackfish. This group also includes killer whales. They often loaf during the day and feed at night. Because their food is locally abundant and available year round, they don’t need to migrate or fast for long periods.

Blue whales are in the second suborder, the baleen whales. Baja California’s Sea of Cortez is one of the best places in the world to search for these magnificent creatures. Blue whales are arguably the largest animals that have ever lived. There are records from the southern hemisphere of individuals over 100 feet long and weighing close to 200 tons, the weight of 30 elephants. Females are larger than males. To nourish such gargantuan bodies, these animals must bring in tons of food each day. That can be accomplished only by efficiently harvesting their meals from a seemingly endless and convenient supply. Baleen whales have hundreds of frayed, fingernail-like plates that hang down from the roofs of their mouths. They drop their lower jaws and bring in up to 100 tons of water and krill at a time, then force the water out as it’s strained by the baleen. Krill are crustaceans like shrimp but without pincers. They live in dense aggregations. Blue whales gorge themselves during much of the year when food is abundant and then may go for many months without feeding. They are often solitary because of their prodigious appetites. With the use of photos, marine mammalogists can now recognize individuals of a distinct and growing population of around 2,500 blue whales. This group winters off Mexico and Central America and summers west of California. The area is biologically productive, because plentiful sunshine and the upwelling of nutrients allow plankton to thrive. Populations of these tiny invertebrates, especially krill, explode during winter and spring and attract blues to the Sea of Cortez from February to April. Even with predictable occurrences of blue whales, there is no guarantee of a sighting. Possibly when you’re least expecting it, you might peer down into the deep blue water of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez and catch a glimpse of dappled sunlight playing across a 75-foot phantom. A geyser-like spray may shoot 30 feet skyward and hang like campfire smoke as a mottled, steel-blue body quickly and silently slices the surface. If you’re really lucky you may be watching one of the approximately 20% that show their large flukes on their terminal dive

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