Watching the Whales Go By

“Look! A whale! Over there!” We are standing at the point at Crescent Bay Park and a young woman points excitedly toward a shiny black mound just above the surface of the water.

“Did you see it? Look! There’s the blow.”

Childlike glee fills the crowd as the whale spouts. This slow-moving swimmer is A Pacific Gray, in the midst of its winter migration from the food-rich arctic waters to the mating grounds and nursery of Baja California. The journey will take from two to three months and cover a distance of 10,000 to 14,000 miles round-trip, one of the longest mammalian migrations.

The whale surfaces again for air, then dives, leaving us with a flip of its broad black tail. Sounds of “Ooooh, and ahhhhh,” are vocalized in harmony.

Binoculars are passed around so everyone can see the creature close up. We are strangers — young and old, walkers and gazers — but for the moment we are transfixed by the simple sight of the whale. What is this enchantment? What sparks this unmistakable glee from sighting these magnificent creatures?

I think part of the excitement is their mysterious existence, out of our sight except for a few seconds on the surface. They inhabit a world we know only from snorkeling or diving. While walking the beach this week, Emma and I shared another sighting. I happened to glance at one of the beautiful beachfront homes, and a woman caught my eye with her gesturing. She pointed toward the second reef just off Brooks Street, and there, a mother and her calf frolicked in the shallow waters.

The mother languorously rose and dove, but not her baby. The calf entertained and thrilled us with breechings. Not one, or two, but three. I clapped my hands in
delightI was surprised to see the calf. I thought that one of the purposes of the gray migration was to give birth in the warm and highly saline water Of Scammon’s Lagoon. Newborns float next to their mother’s body and fatten up on her milk.

This sanctuary and part time nursery is located outside Guerro Negro on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula. A bit of research revealed that calving often takes place outside the Lagoon. In the last two years, researchers and observers have counted 60 calves. As of the 7th of February in this season, 19 have been counted.

The odds of survival do decrease the farther the birth takes place from the protected bay. Calves are born with little body fat, and instead of floating and feeding alongside their mothers, must immediately join the migration as swimmers.

Unable to rest and fatten, they instead may be subjected to high waves and predators, such as sharks and killer whales. The newborn floundering in the waves at El Morro just three weeks ago was a testament to their struggles.

Gray whales are shiny black to grey with white mottling and barnacle patches, and are often covered with scratches. Newborns are dark grey to black, although some may have distinctive white markings.

The whales swim steadily toward their destination in groups of two or three, moving between four and six knots per hour. After the surfacing, whales will dive for from three to six minutes, then resurface for three or five blows in a row, then dive again.

This pattern repeats itself rhythmically over and over again as the whales swim south.

The months of January and February are peak time in Laguna for catching a shoreline glimpse of the grays’ southern migration. A friend who lives on one of our hillsides says that he has already counted over 100.

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