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Whale Watching Season Underway in Central Baja

By Shari Bondy

Happy 2012 from Central Baja, where the weather has been fantastic so far. Things got off to a great start for the sport fishers in our area. There are large schools of big yellowtail very close to Bahia Asuncion yielding fish over 40 pounds. The surfers are stoked with the big swells, the snow birds are enjoying shorts and T-shirt weather, and the sea lions at Asuncion Island are having a great time swimming with the tourists.

Gray whales in Laguna Ojo de Liebre

A gray whale approaches a panga in Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro

This is my favorite time of year, as I am guiding whale-watching trips to the gray whale calving lagoon along the Pacific coast. I have been doing photo identification of gray whales for more than 20 years. For the next two months, I will enjoy leading eco tours, sharing my expertise with visitors, and hanging out with the whales I’ve come to know over the years.

The northernmost lagoon near Guerrero Negro is known as Ojo de Liebre or Scammon’s Lagoon. (The other two are Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia Magdalena.)  The lagoon starts to fill up the last few days of December with mostly females who are about to give birth. Sometimes they are accompanied by a midwife. The males frolic out in the ocean along the Baja coastline after they mate and may even venture around Land’s End and up into the Gulf of California before they turn around and head back north to the summer feeding grounds.

The calving lagoons are perfect places to give birth, as they have shallow warm water canals and are well protected, giving the babies a better chance at survival. The newborns are the size of a small car weighing around 1,000 pounds. They are pinkish when they are born and quickly turn gray when their skin is exposed to water.

I visited the lagoon in early January this year and have never seen so many whales present so early in the year and so many newborn calves, which indicates it will be an excellent season.

Each week has a unique whale-viewing aspect. The first couple weeks of the year are great for seeing huge pregnant females, mating, births, and newborns. By the end of January, the calves are gaining a hundred pounds a day and learning new skills like spy-hopping and breaching. There is also exciting mating behavior with several animals thrashing and rolling about and lifting their tails.

In February, the calves need to acquire muscle tone for their long migration north, so the mothers swim them against the tide in a parade-like procession. They pause to nurse and rest at slack tide, then turn around and swim back to the inner lagoon against the tide again. Some calves become interested in the pangas and try to swim over to them. The mothers are very protective but also bring their babies over to the pangas to teach them about boats, motors, and the dangers of propellers. Many whales hang out around the stern of the pangas by the motors and the lanchero. The whales know who is driving what boat, and they make friends with them and visit and play with them.

Many whales that have birthed in the lagoon previously trust the lancheros, so they approach the pangas sometimes soliciting pats and rubs from the passengers. These friendly whales pass on this behavior to their calves, so there are now multiple generations of whales who enjoy contact with humans.

In March, the calves are big and boisterous and can be mischievous as they try to escape from their mother to play with the pangas. There is more friendly behavior as they get ready to leave the lagoon on their long journey north.

It’s not too late to book a trip to catch the whales before they go. You can search the activity directory for trip operators or contact me here for more info.

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