On Gray Whales; or, my favorite part of my boat year

by Sarah Lake Upton in


This post is a bit after the fact, because as slow and expensive as our ship's internet is normally, for reasons never fully explained it is even slower and therefore more expensive in Baja California.  I feel sure that it was laughing at me on several occasions as I tried to convince it to let me see my email. 

I am home now, bracing myself to open the door of my yarn room but excited to start working with yarn again.  I made a farm visit up to Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset last week, had a lovely time catching up with Amy, and bought lots of her gorgeous coopworth fleece.  Photos and the full story to follow.  In the mean time, gray whales: 

The Sea Lion spends most of the winter going back and forth between Costa Rica and Panama, and most of the summer in Alaska, but in between the two seasons we have a magical three weeks in Baja California.  My favorite trip of the entire year is the two week photo trip, marketed under the name “A Remarkable Journey” in our literature, but known to all of us as “the trip when we get to visit the baby gray whales”.   (Our sister ship the Sea Bird spends their entire winter in Baja, and no, I am not at all jealous of them at all… really….civilized weather, whales, never once having to be at the mercy of the Panama Canal Authority, why would I be jealous?). 

After a little over a week’s travel from Costa Rica without guests, we stopped in the fishing town of San Carlos in Magdalena Bay on the Pacific side of Baja to meet the guests and naturalists for the two week trip.  Then we moved up the coast a bit to Laguno San Ignacio, one of the shallow lagoons where gray whales go to give birth and let their calves grow a little before making the long migration up to Alaska.

Like many species of whales, gray whales were hunted nearly to extinction.  The whalers would often kill the calves first.  This makes the current behavior of the gray whales in San Ignacio even more puzzling.  In the early 1970’s mother whales began approaching the small open fishing boats (known as pangas, the panga drivers are pangueros) and encouraging their calves to interact with the them.  This is not a subtle behavior; the mother whale gently t’s the calf up towards the panga with her nose.  In the version of this story told to me by a panguero last year, the first few times this happened the panguero was rightly confused and scared by the encounter.  Gray whales had a reputation among whalers as “devil fish” because they defend their young quite vigorously.  Accounts from whaling ships in the 1880’s in San Ignacio liken them to “hospital ships” because so many crew were injured by mother gray whales (which seems only fair).  

Eventually an eco-tourism industry formed around the lagoons, and access to the lagoons when whales are present is limited.   In 1979 the Mexican government established by decree a "marine refuge zone" for whales in San Ignacio Lagoon.   In 1988 the larger area of El Vizcaino was created as a biosphere preserve, which was then recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in  1993.  This has not stopped attempts at development.  In the 1990's there was an attempt by a multi-national company to build a salt production facility in San Ignacio, which was thankfully defeated. 

But still, no one knows why the gray whales are friendly.  Gray whales are baleen whales, which means that even if we wanted to there is no way that we could offer them food treats (their idea of a food treat would be hundreds of gallons of very small shrimp, which is impractical). They are not spending time with us because they hope we’ll feed them.  If they aren’t in the mood for our company they can, and do, easily swim away from the pongas.   

And yet they come up and say hello. 

Photo credit Millie Clarke

Photo credit Millie Clarke

photo credit Millie Clark,  astute observers will notice the Engineer's Armwarmer keeping my camera hand warm.  

photo credit Millie Clark,  astute observers will notice the Engineer's Armwarmer keeping my camera hand warm.  

  Maggie figured out that she could hook her heels under the bench seats of the pangas to keep herself steady and increase her reach when she leaned out.  Her enthusiasm seemed to call the whales, or perhaps they were just as worried as the rest of us that she was going to go overboard. 

 

Maggie figured out that she could hook her heels under the bench seats of the pangas to keep herself steady and increase her reach when she leaned out.  Her enthusiasm seemed to call the whales, or perhaps they were just as worried as the rest of us that she was going to go overboard. 

We have decided that gray whales feel a bit like eggplants, and that like most baby mammals baby gray whales are just a little bit softer and floppier than their adult counterparts.  None of us managed it this time, but apparently baby gray whales are a bit mouthy and like to have their baleen plates rubbed.  They are so well insulated that their skin temperature is barely warmer than the surrounding water, which makes intellectual sense but still feels weird.  For people used to touching fish, marine mammals don’t have a slime layer, though they are constantly shedding the outer layer of their skin, which is one of the reason they are covered in whale lice (which are not lice at all, but rather a type of amphipod - the relationship is considered commensal).

At one point we had three mother/calf pairs hanging out around our pangas, playing with us and each other.  The babies like to gently bump up under the pongas, which is a bit disconcerting given that they are bigger than the boats, but in that that gently bumping against each other seems to be how whales show each other affection it’s possible that this is the babies’ version of patting us back.  So perhaps I can say that I have patted a wild baby gray whale, and also been patted by a baby gray whale. 

photo credit goes to a generous guest on the trip who put this photo on the shared drive.   I am the idiot standing up in the panga to get a better view.  In my defense, I am also trying to balance the boat out a little, despite Maggie's best effort to join the whales. 

photo credit goes to a generous guest on the trip who put this photo on the shared drive.   I am the idiot standing up in the panga to get a better view.  In my defense, I am also trying to balance the boat out a little, despite Maggie's best effort to join the whales. 

The preceding bit is me trying to put the experience into words, but word are utterly inadequate to describe the experience.  “Magical” is such an overused and ultimately meaningless descriptor, but it is really the only thing that fits.  Friendly gray whales belong to the mythical realm of selkies and sea monsters, and yet I have scritched the nose of a wild baby whale (actually I have scritched the nose of several baby whales, and also several mother whales, and I have had several baby whales hold their breath until I was very near their blow hole, at which point they exhaled forcefully, which feels too deliberate to be anything but a baby whale joke, at which point you can almost feel them go “tee-hee-hee” as they duck below the water).

Their tales look like the sea monsters on old charts. 

Their tales look like the sea monsters on old charts. 

and sometimes they exhale rainbows

and sometimes they exhale rainbows

The whales will hang out in the lagoons a little longer while the calves gain strength and size for the long migration to Alaska.  It's a scary journey.  Along the way there will be fishing nets and large ships and killer whales, who drown the babies (an episode of the documentary Planet Earth includes an instance of this).  Some of them won’t make it, but most of them will.  Gray whales are one of the rare success stories; humans drove them to near extinction, and now the population size is approaching our best guess for what is was pre-whaling.   I wish them all the best on their travels. 

I don't know who to credit for this photo

I don't know who to credit for this photo

While I am home working with yarn the Sea Lion will be making her own migration up to Alaska.  I will meet back up with the boat in Juneau at the end of May. 

A view of the Sea Lion from my hotel room in La Paz.  Shortly after this was taken she headed out for another week long trip. Very very early the next morning I found my own way to the airport, and four flights later I was home. 

A view of the Sea Lion from my hotel room in La Paz.  Shortly after this was taken she headed out for another week long trip. Very very early the next morning I found my own way to the airport, and four flights later I was home. 

And now to yarn.