How to pet a gray whale

Sudha Warrier

4 min read
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Gray whale

Every spring in early February, gray whales or Ballena Gris, complete their three-thousand-mile journey from the Arctic circle along the California coast to arrive at Laguna de San Ignacio. Here they mate, give birth to their calves, and nurse them. An ideal place for a chance to pet a whale.

To get to Laguna de San Ignacio, our group of twelve whale lovers had chosen the ecotour company Baja Discovery. Established in 1991, by Karen Ivey, it has a great reputation as a sustainably operated enterprise working in close collaboration with the local population. We boarded a tiny Cessna at Tijuana, Mexico and flew over Baja California peninsula which stretches out like an arm between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. We landed on a dirt strip and headed out in two small pangas to the little island of Punta Piedra in the middle of the lagoon. We settled into our comfortable tents and after a hearty dinner watched the glorious sunset as dolphins arced within yards of the shore. Pods of Brown Pelicans and committees of Elegant Terns flew home to their roosts as night descended. The osprey couple were already snuggled into their nest.

Nineteenth century whalers called these Gentle Giants Devil Fish

Gray whales were almost hunted to extinction by the early twentieth century. Over 40 feet in length and 80-90 thousand pounds in weight, Gray Whales rammed the whaler’s skiffs into kindling as commercial whalers harpooned the calves. So fierce were they, that whalers called them Devil fish. Even after whaling was banned, seafarers kept their distance. In 1972 a Mexican fisherman Don Pachico Mayoral awoke in his little boat one afternoon to see a gray whale lolling about next to his boat. He dared to reach out and touch the creature which hung around for a while allowing him to pet it repeatedly. Thus, arose the legend of the friendly gray whale and the tourist trade to pet these gentle giants.

Would we be so lucky?

The three lagoons- Laguna de San Ignacio, Laguna Ojo de Libre, and Bahia Magdalena- provide safe havens for gray whales from predatory orcas as they make their 10,000-mile annual migrations. They lie within Latin America's largest biosphere reserve, El Vizcaino. It is a designated World Heritage Site and has Mexican Sanctuary status. Hunting whales is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, international CITES law and Mexican Sanctuary laws. No fishing is permitted during breeding season and only a small number of boats are allowed near the whales to protect them from harassment. The local population is great year-round caretakers of this invaluable natural resource. The gray whale population has stabilized and is a heartwarming conservation success.

We ventured out in two pangas each day with our trusty boatman and our naturalist guides towards the mouth of the lagoon. Within minutes we began to see the whale spouts in the distance sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. We noticed the prominent ‘knuckles’ on their backs as they approached us, often in pairs. “Mother and calf” our naturalist explained.

As they dove, we frantically splashed water along the side of our pangas yelling, “Come on Baby, Come on up”. Suddenly the air filled with yells of “Under us, Look!” Sure enough, the baby whale had dived under, within inches of the bottom and emerged on the other side. All of us scrambled to the opposite side of the panga uncaring that we may tip it over. It surfaced and let out a huge audible spout showering us with whale snot. We laughed as we wiped off our faces.

By the next day, everyone except me had touched whales, sometimes several times. Soon, we could tell them apart because of the splotches and distinctive scratches on their backs and flukes. The white circles of barnacles were distinctive too. We learned that most gray whales were “handed” showing fewer barnacles on one side as they scraped the bottom to swallow the microscopic amphipods that constitute their diet.

The babies would approach repeatedly, the mothers always in attendance. The mothers would “spy hop” standing almost vertically, often with their eyes above the water. Occasionally they would blow bubble rings. Since
gray whales are baleen whales the bubble rings are not used for feeding on fish. Perhaps they were just having fun! I realized that these giants were studying us not merely being observed. Their approach was intentional, purposeful, curious, and even playful. They had as much agency as we had, if not more, because they were in their element, while we were not.

On the third day, we were out in the morning surrounded by six or seven whales when a baby with a big brown patch on its back swam parallel to our panga and I reached out and touched it. Then again on the other side. It felt warm, smooth, and firm but yielding. The feeling was mind-bending, - a sentient being of another species had contacted me!

By April, the baby whales are ready to make their three-thousand-mile journey to their arctic wintering grounds accompanied by their mothers. The males had left earlier back to the Arctic for the winter.

All too soon it was time for us to depart. As we boarded our Cessna, we promised to return and stay connected. That is a promise I intend to keep.

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