Marine Science Chapters


The Lagoons in Baja

Whale watching skiff
Whale watching skiffs in the Baja lagoons are highly regulated by the local people. Only a limited number of boats are allowed in the whale watching areas and they must have a maximum of 6-8 passengers, a guide and a boat handler. (GA image)

Three major lagoons in Baja California are the primary destination of the southbound gray whales. These are Scammon's Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Magdalena Bay. The Mexican government strictly regulates access to these lagoons to ensure that any human activities do not affect the whales while they are in the quiet, protected lagoons of Baja California. The gray whale has used these lagoons, for centuries, for both mating and birthing. The lagoons are remote and provide a protected area for the gray whale to reproduce. Past records show that the gray whale was found in bays as far north as San Diego, but whalers killed the entire herd in San Diego in the 1880s and they never returned.

Gray whale spyhopping
The power of the gray whale can be observed by their ability to jump out of the water. (GA image)

Called "devil-fish" by the whalers of the 1800s, the gray whale was one of the most feared of all the whales by the whalers who used hand-held harpoons to kill their quarry. The gray whale was known to purposely surface under a whaleboat, breaking the boat and injuring (or killing) the whalers. They were known to actually attack the small boats.

Petting a gray whale
Especially at the end of the breeding season (March and April) the whales in the Baja lagoons may become exceptionally friendly, allowing the whale watchers to pet them. (SA image)

Called "friendlies" by whale watching tourists, many whales now seek human contact in the Baja lagoons. This behavior was first reported in 1976 from San Ignacio Lagoon and has grown each year. During "friendly" encounters, a gray whale approaches a whale watching skiff, eyes the passengers, and may come alongside and surface so that the tourists can touch (or sometimes even "kiss") the friendly whale. Toward the end of the winter season the calves become quite curious about the tourist boats and some of the mother whales allow their babies to spend time with the tourists. Occasionally a mother will even encourage this behavior by lifting her calf up for tourists to touch. Many of the skiff drivers notice that the gray whales seem to be attracted to the small outboard engines of the skiffs that take 6-8 passengers to experience the gray whales in the Baja lagoons. Some believe the whales can be attracted to the skiff by a splashing noise and encourage their passengers to splash water on the sides of the boats to bring in the "friendlies."

Gray whale penis
This picture of the inflated penis of a male gray whale is an indication that the group of three gray whales in this area is a mating group. (SA image)

Most mating activity of the gray whale occurs on the way to, or near, the lagoons of Baja California. Occasional sightings of mating gray whales (on their way south) have been reported from Southern California. Usually, mating occurs in groups of three whales, a female and two males. Some believe that a dominant male mates with the female and that the other male helps position the female and facilitate the coupling whereas others believe that the two males are actually in some type of competition during this behavior. In any case, the inflated penis of the male may often be displayed at the surface of the water during this activity. It is normally not visible and inflated only during mating or death (when the male may be decaying and gases from decomposition may inflate the penis).

Gray whale mother and calf
The mother of this calf can be seen under her baby. She is supporting her baby while the curious baby eyes the whale watchers. Notice the light colored outline of her two blow holes, an indication of the presence of lice there. (GA image)

Gestation is estimated at 11-13 months, allowing the newly pregnant females to return to the Arctic, feed during the summer, and then migrate back to the Baja lagoons in plenty of time before their calf is born. Birthing usually occurs in the back reaches of the lagoons (sometimes up to 30 miles from the entrance). Newly pregnant females often join the birthing areas and help with the actual birthing and care of the young, much like a midwife. Females who give birth will not mate until the following year. Thus, most females give birth every other year after they reach sexual maturity.

Gray whale mother
This mother gray whale has positioned herself between her calf and the whale watching boat. She may herd her baby away if she is nervous about the encounter or she may allow her baby to explore the skiff. (GA image)

Twelve to seventeen feet in length at birth, the baby gray whale weighs about a ton, and is generally born only in Baja. After birth, the baby nurses underwater by nudging one of the two slits on the belly of its mother. Inside these slits are the mother's nipples. As the baby nudges, the nipple pushes out and injects rich milk into the mouth of the baby. Calves often gain 50 pounds every day in the Baja nurseries by consuming up to 50 gallons of milk per day! The milk is extremely rich (up to 40 percent fat). (Compare that to the 2 percent fat milk that we drink.) During the next several months the mother will exercise her baby and watch over it as it learns about breathing, diving, interacting with other whales, currents, sand bars, and its environment. Almost all of this is done within the protection of the Baja lagoons.

Gray whale spyhopping
This gray whale may be looking around for landmarks or the presence of other gray whales. (GA image)

Not all the gray whales stay in the lagoons. Most of the males and juveniles spend time outside the lagoons and may be seen "surfing" and playing in the waves that may form on top of the sand bars that form at the entrance to the lagoons.

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(Revised 21 June 2006)
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