Get to know these incredible, gentle giants

Family: Eschrichtiidae

Order: Artiodactyla

Genus: Eschrichtius

Species: E. robustus

Range: The waters of Baja California in winter; Bering and Chukchi Seas in summer

Population: Approximately 26,000

How to spot them: Dorsal hump followed by 6-12 small ridges (most whales have a dorsal fin); mottled gray skin with white patches of lice and barnacles; double blow-hole with heart-shaped spouts

Eric and friends share a magical moment with a baby gray whale off the coast of Baja California.

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Once known as “devil fish” because of the ferocious way they defended themselves against whalers, gray whales today are dubbed the “friendliest in the world”. In their calving lagoons in Baja you can find genuinely curious and playful mother whales approaching small boats, even lifting up their calves for a welcome pat on the head.

“This type of behavior may have been possible during the whaling days, but it was highly unlikely, as they were being harpooned by the thousands,” explains Lindblad naturalist Pete Pederson. “Then back in the late 70s someone reached out a warm and gentle hand, crossed a tremendous divide, and touched a 40-ton whale that surprisingly loved it. This couldn’t have happened until the generation of those that feared being slaughtered in the late 1940s was separated by a collective memory of about 30 years,” he says.

No one knows exactly why they exhibit this behavior, but it’s clear they enjoy it and continue to pass it down to their calves. Scroll for more fun facts about our favorite friendly whales.