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Baja, Mexico is often described by both visitors and locals as a place of magic. The vistas are unique and striking with a desert landscape surrounded on both sides by ocean.

Sunset from San Ignacio Lagoon; Shane Keena Photography

What makes it truly captivating though is the diversity of wildlife, especially the “friendly gray whales”. Where else in the world do whales approach you to be petted, hugged, and kissed? Moms even bring their curious young up to the pangas (open skiffs) for attention.

Interacting with a friendly gray whale; Shane Keena Photography

Why are the gray whales friendly?

Nobody knows.

Some people assert that the whales are attracted to the sounds of the boat engines, others say they are just itchy and like to be scratched. It is also possible that they are trying to connect with us. These same whales were just recently hunted to near extinction and called “devil fish” by whalers as they would fight back when being attacked. Yet these sentient leviathans now approach people seeking out gentle interactions.

As a marine mammologist, people often ask me “what is your favorite whale”? As you may have guessed based on the topic, it is the gray whale! They may not be as majestic as the Humpback whale or as dynamic as the Orca, but they are the only whale that displays such consistently “friendly” behavior.

Gray whales are baleen whales and the only member of their family, Eschrichitiidae. They are distinct from their relatives with a stocky body, stubby fins, and a series of knuckles instead of a dorsal fin. They are gray in color with lighter patches and many barnacles; these markings allow us to identify individual animals and help researchers to estimate the population size (currently ~26,000 animals).

Photo-ID: different photos of the same gray whale

There were once 3 distinct populations of Gray whales, but the Atlantic grays were wiped out by hunting by the early 1700’s. Today the Western North Pacific population that feeds off Russia is critically endangered while the Eastern North Pacific population has recovered from near-extinction and were the first of the great whales to be removed from the Endangered Species list. Although the ENP gray whales are considered a success story, there are still threats facing the species and this year (2019) they experienced an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) with nearly 150 dead animals in less than 5 months.

Scuba diving to sample mysids (gray whale prey) in British Columbia, Canada, for my Ph.D. research

Most of the deaths were likely due to starvation. These gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal, spending their winters in the protected lagoons of Baja to mate and give birth, then traveling up to 6,000 miles to their summer feeding grounds in northern waters. There is concern that gray whales were starving this year due to the combination of an El Nino year and global climate change as the warming oceans are resulting in a decline in their primary prey of amphipods in the Arctic. Fortunately gray whales are opportunistic in their diet, although known to be bottom-feeders scooping up prey from the mud, they will also feed on plankton and small fish. In fact, my Ph.D. research was focused on investigating the foraging choices of a small population of gray whales that fed on mysids (swarming crustaceans) off British Columbia. This flexibility can help them thrive, but can gray whales find enough food in undisturbed habitats?

As Jacques Yves Cousteau said “People protect what they love”.

Touching a gray whale, looking into their soulful eyes, and gaining their trust, is a life-changing experience. Shane and I created Life Aquatic Expeditions to provide other people with the opportunities that we have been so lucky to have through our careers. We are excited to offer a live-aboard trip from San Diego to Baja, observing marine life at sea and visiting remote islands along the way, culminating in San Ignacio lagoon to experience the friendly gray whales, up-close and personal!

Join us on our Gray Whales of Baja Expedition, March 21-29, 2020!

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