Members Baja Trip 2016: An Intimate Encounter

Each year, Birch Aquarium Members have the opportunities to participate in the trip of a lifetime. This adventure to the breeding and birthing lagoons in Baja California, Mexico allow for intimate encounters with curious Gray Whales. In this post, Education Specialist Sarah gives us a first hand account of 2016’s fantastic Baja experience. 

I recently made an awe-inspiring and life-changing journey to explore the lagoons in Baja with a wonderful group of Birch Aquarium members. This trip is nothing compared to the 5,000+mile journey the adult whales have made from the Bering and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska to give birth in the lagoons of Baja.

At the end of March 2016, there were over 1000 cow/calf pairs in the larger Scammon’s Lagoon with very few solitary individuals mating. In the smaller, more southern San Ignacio lagoon, there were about 200 cow/calf pairs. Most all of the males and solitary females have started to travel back up along the Pacific Coast to their feeding grounds.

The fact that these beautiful giants choose to come over to visit the boats full of splashing and lively whale-enthusiasts makes it very difficult to avoid using human features such as friendly and curious to describe them.

A mother Gray Whale and her calf surface close to whale watchers in the birthing and breeding lagoons of Baja.

A mother Gray Whale and her calf surface close to whale watchers in the birthing and breeding lagoons of Baja California, MEX. 

Mother and calf Gray Whales investigate enthusiastic whale watchers.

Mother and calf Gray Whales investigate enthusiastic whale watchers.

Known as “friendlies” to lagoon visitors, the calves exhibit friendly behavior toward the panga boats and the people inside. The mothers seem to stay back, inspect the boats, and watch their babies, but always stay close-by. The calves are swimming in sync with the mothers, learning new behaviors by copying their mothers, and almost waiting for mom’s permission to approach the boats. Once the mother allows it, the fun for the babies and whale-watchers begins! Babies get a good look at the boats from below and the whale-watchers from above the surface.

I see you! A Gray Whale calf takes a closer look at Birch Aquarium Members.

I see you! A Gray Whale calf takes a closer look at Birch Aquarium Members.

Face to face with a young Gray Whale. This calf is just beginning to acquire the encrusting barnacles and whale lice seen on adult Gray Whales.

Face to face with a young Gray Whale. This calf is just beginning to acquire the encrusting barnacles and whale lice seen on adult Gray Whales.

The babies and their mothers come right up next to the boats, rub against the boats, and seem to enjoy being rubbed by people, as noted by them circling the boats for repeated interactions.

The "friendly" Gray Whales chose to interact with the whale watchers. Sometimes they will even single out individual people to interact with.

In Baja, the “friendly” Gray Whales chose to interact with the whale watchers. Sometimes they will even single out individual people to interact with.

Gray Whale calves dwarf whale watchers.

While in the Baja Lagoons, the calves often interact with boats. Even though they are just a few months old, Gray Whale calves dwarf whale watchers.

Not every mother and baby are willing to interact though; the guides do say that about 1 in 3 trips have friendlies in arm’s-reach, but we encountered babies that wanted to be touched and mothers that brought them to the boats all 3 days we were in the lagoons. One time we were even surrounded by 3 pairs of mothers and babies. As the babies get older and are closer to travelling up north to their feeding grounds, they usually become more adventurous.

Mom and calf investigate the camera.

Mom (below) and calf investigate the camera.

A Gray Whale calf rests its head on its mother next to the wale watching boat.

A Gray Whale calf rests its head on its mother next to the wale watching boat.

When the mothers aren’t supporting the calf under the water, they will sometimes come to the boats to say hello and get rubbed as well. The mothers are never far away from their young. They often come within arm’s reach of the boats and you can see the large clusters of symbiotic barnacles and beneficial whale lice that will attach over the lifetime of the whale and help to clean dead skin cells.

The barnacles and whale lice become apparent when you are up close and personal with Gray Whales.

The barnacles and whale lice become apparent when you are up close and personal with Gray Whales.

 

There is something both magical and intimidating in the interaction with these giants. We all felt such a powerful connection with the natural world to be not only in their presence, but to also be welcomed so completely into their world. If you ever have a chance to visit them in the lagoons, I highly recommend it. It is an experience that is very difficult to compare to any other type whale-watching, especially since I’m not sure who’s watching whom more, the whales or us.

For more information on our annual Baja Wale Watching Adventure, visit aquarium.ucsd.edu. Dates for 2017 will be posted in late fall 2016. 

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego