When people on the west coast of the United States speak of whales, most of them are talking about gray whales. Perhaps it’s because this is the most conspicuous species along the Pacific coast. Their migration route to the Baja California calving lagoons passes Washington, Oregon, and California during December and January. It takes about 6 weeks for the bulk of them to pass. Most will be off central California in mid-January. In that same area in February the first returning north are passing the last going south. This 10,000-mile round-trip migration is one of the longest for any mammal. Pregnant females migrate first, swimming about 4 - 6 miles per hour non-stop. Other adults and immature females are followed by immature males.
Baja Gray whales are in a family all of their own, Eshrichtiidae, named after a Danish zoology professor in the 19th century. They grow up to about 45 feet and weigh a ton per foot. Males are a few feet shorter than females. They have a gray blotchy pattern from pigment spots and barnacles and their scars. In the place of a dorsal fin they have a small hump followed by a series of knuckle-like bumps along the ridge of their back. Gray whales in Baja California are not like many of the other baleen whales that have numerous expandable throat pleats that are able to take in large quantities of water and food. Instead, their throats have two to five longitudinal creases that allow for little expansion. Their baleen plates are short, coarse and stiff with about 130 to 180 on each side. They are adapted for filtering out small crustaceans called amphipods from muddy bottoms. They suck up the top 6 inches of mud and force the water and sediment out through the baleen to strain out the food. Gray whales reach the Bering, Chuckchi, and Beaufort Seas in May to November. These areas have depths of 165 to 225 feet. One individual will sift through 100 acres of sediment and consume 65 tons of food in one summer. During this time they gain back 16 to 30% of their weight, enough to nourish them through the winter, when most individuals are in Baja California, Mexico. Many of these animals will not make it to the Arctic and will stop to feed along the way and winter in the Pacific Northwest and along Vancouver Island, saving them the energy of the long migration.
There is little food in the south for them, but the lagoons of Baja California offer protection and warmer water where calves can grow faster. Lagoon mouths are gathering places where mating takes place often at slack tides. These are fascinating affairs often involving two males per female. Most females give birth every other year. In the winter of 1975 to 1976 a curious whale approached a boat in San Ignacio Lagoon and interacted with the people onboard. Ever since then the popularity and thrill of being close to whales has been one of the highlights of many people’s lives. Day boats are for hire in San Ignacio Lagoon, at two villages by Magdalena Bay, and at other lagoons in Baja California. Small Mexico cruise ships may provide access to whale-watching in these sites as well.
These lagoons were not only the perfect place for whales, but were even better for whalers. Once Charles Scammon found the first quiet bay full of whales in 1855 their exploitation exploded. By 1880 the hunt was abandoned, because there were not enough whales to kill. This caused massive starvation in Siberian native whalers. In the following 30 years, numbers began to increase again. In 1914 Norwegian factory ships returned to Magdalena Bay. Between 1924 and 1929, 181 grays were taken. Norway was joined by Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States in the killing until again few were left. The gray whales were finally protected in 1946. Historically they were in the Atlantic until the 17th century when they were most likely annihilated by whalers. The gray whales along North America’s Pacific coast have managed a remarkable recovery as a result of protection, and most estimates indicate that there are now more than 20,000 individuals.
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