Friendlies: the Gray Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon
Last week, Greg and Barbara MacGillivray traveled to Laguna San Ignacio, on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where they were treated to an experience that was, quite simply, profound. San Ignacio is a whale watcher’s dream, where visitors have a good chance of having an up-close encounter with a friendly whale. However, these amazing animals deserve space and respect, and although it is legal here to touch the whales, strict regulations ensure that interactions only happen on the whales’ terms. We hope to illustrate the extensive measures taken to protect them.
Here we share this memorable trip through Barbara’s eyes, as we believe that moving experiences are the most powerful way for people to understand the importance of conservation.
Each winter, hundreds of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate about 6,000 miles (10,000 km) from their Alaskan feeding grounds to the warm, shallow water of San Ignacio lagoon, to give birth and mate between January and April. Part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, it is the gray whale’s last undisturbed nursing and breeding ground.
“There is a constant ‘oofft’ of the exhalation from the blow holes of all the whales surfacing for air. Such a gentle reassurance that nature is alive and well in the lagoon: probably the softest, most gentle and nurturing sound in the world,” said Barbara.
Incredible interactions between whales and humans, such as this one, captured by Greg, are not uncommon:
Serge Dedina, the Executive Director of ocean conservation group WiLDCOAST and author of Saving the Gray Whale, said it’s important to strike the right balance between conservation and tourism.
“There is no other area in the world where whale watching is more regulated than San Ignacio Lagoon. In spite of the tourist activities there are more whales than ever,” he said.
“Local outfitters, the Mexican government, and conservationists have worked to eliminate most of the major threats to the whales in the Lagoon… Whale watching guides have been the biggest proponents of preserving whales along their migratory routes, and stopping planned hunts of whales. They’ve also supported a major endeavor to preserve 400,000 acres of the lagoon,” Serge said.
In addition, whale watching guides have stopped major development including a massive salt plant, and switched from using two-stroke to four-stroke engines, which are less polluting and quieter.
“We would never approach the whales directly, but waited at a respectful distance of about 20-30 feet of a visible whale and calf to see if they would approach us. The initiative was always in the whales’ court,” said Barbara.
If a whale approached a panga (small fishing boat) seeking human interaction, no more than two boats were allowed in the immediate area of the “friendly,” as these whales were called.
“Frequently, it seemed like the mother wanted us to see her calf, actively pushing the calf close to our boat,” Barbara said. Luckily they were able to record and share one such amazing event!
Whales also come to the lagoon to mate, said Barbara. “You immediately notice lots of action on the surface of the water with fins, tails sweeping in short arcs over the water. We watched from a distance for over 30 minutes and then moved on.”
On their last day in San Ignacio, Barbara and Greg had their most moving encounter, which even their guide wasn’t prepared for: a mother approached with her calf, who had a lobster trap line stuck in its mouth.
“It seemed to all of us that the mother wanted help and we all felt a profound sense of helplessness,” Barbara said.
The guide immediately contacted a resident scientist who would try to locate and help the calf, but its chance of survival with the lobster trap line in its mouth was slim. Fortunately, the years of work activists have put into protecting the whales have helped to reduce entanglements like this. Greg and Barbara’s guide, Jim, has seen such occurrences only three times in over a dozen seasons here.
According to Serge, “It’s important to remember that all the whale watching outfitters are local fishermen and that by having them involved in local whale watching, it’s taking pressure off of the fisheries inside and outside the Lagoon, which is beneficial to gray whales and other wildlife and fish species.”
Whale watching tourism is now profitable enough that fishermen can stop fishing for several months per year, giving the fish populations a chance to recover.
Moreover, the mutually desired, intimate interactions between whales and respectful humans in San Ignacio Lagoon further demonstrate the importance of preserving these incredible creatures, for their sake – and for ours.