February 24, 2012

Once again, we want to thank Jerry for stepping up and providing us with great information and photographs for the website.  Where else but here can you get such a great education and vacation without ever leaving the comfort of your own home. 

The Gray Whales of Magdelena Bay

Every year, thousands of Pacific Gray Whales make their annual migration between the Bering Sea and the Baja California coast, and back again.  These whales are among the largest mammals on earth, and they make this annual round trip of 10,000 miles every year of their lives.

The summer months are spent in their feeding areas off of the Alaska coast (shown in blue on the map).  In the fall, they start the migration to Mexican waters.  The pregnant females are the first to leave, followed up to a month later by the rest.  They arrive off the Baja Coast in December and January, after swimming continuously at a rate of 6-8 miles per hour for three months.  The map shown here can be found at the following website, which also contains a lot of information about the whales: 

 http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/gwhale/map/route.html

During the migration period it is possible to spot the whales all along the west coast of the United States and Baja California.  They travel in groups and stay fairly close to shore.

December through March is spent in the warm, shallow bays and lagoons off the Baja coast.  Here they socialize, mate, and the females give birth to their young.  The gestation period for gray whales is one year, so the calves are conceived in Baja and born in the Baja the following year.

An adult gray whale is 45 to 50 feet long, with tails about ten feet across and weighs between 30-40 tons (80,000 pounds).  The females are slightly larger than the males. Both sexes have a life span of about 50 years.   At birth, the calf is about 15 feet long and weighs up to 1500 pounds. 

While the whales are away from the Bering Sea feeding grounds, they do not eat.  As a result, they lose about  30% of their body weight during the nine months they’re away from Alaskan waters. 

Female gray whales are very good mothers, and the calves remain with their mother for up to 1-1/2 years after birth.  The males play no role in parenting and the males and females do not remain together after mating.

All along the Baja coastline are bays – sheltered from the open ocean -- that provide the winter homes for the whales.  One such bay is Magdalena Bay, and from the fishing community of Puerto Lopez Mateos, you can hire a guide and ride out into the bay on an open boat called a “ponga”.

“Whale watching” is a favorite pastime of people living along the Baja coast during this time of year.  And this year has been a very good year for whales.

This year, there are an estimated 80 whales living in the shallow waters of the bay off Puerto Lopez Mateos, so visitors have a very good chance of seeing whales. 

Visitors this year included Deb and me as well as our friends Bill & Susie who visited from North Carolina.

As the Bay is about a 3-1/2 hour drive north from where we’ve been staying, we decided it would be best to go with a tour company, so we were up to meet the van bright and early.

After about 90 minutes driving, we stopped for breakfast: one taco, one enchilada and one empanada – just the thing to get ready for a couple of hours in a rocking boat!

At the dock in Puerto Lopez Mateos, you meet-up with your boat captain and get your life preserver.

It is possible to go there and hire the boat directly, avoiding the extra expense of the organized tour. 

There are also a lot of souvenir vendors around:  you can buy t-shirt, shells, model whales, and other sorts of items as a remembrance of your visit.

Captain of the “Orca” – Did I mention these whales are 45 feet long and weigh 30 tons?  The ponga boats are about 17 feet long.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Only a few minutes out from the dock we spotted the first of about a dozen whales we saw that day.

You first see them when they are some distance away, and many times they just keep swimming away from you.

But occasionally, if you’ve lucky, you’ll find a mama and her calf that are mellow and curious.  They’ll swim right up to the boat!   

Here mama comes right up alongside.  Gray whales are distinctive because they have two side-by-side blowholes – one of which is visible in this photo.

Here she swims between our boat and the other boat --- and gives the folks in the other boat a shower.

The Mexicans have restrictions on how many boats are allowed to be close to an animal – not more than two boats at a time.

This is the only shot I was able to get of mama with her tail out of the water.

She submerged and came-up under the boat and scratched her back on the hull.

Yes, the boat was rocking but she did not do any harm.  It did get our attention, though.

Here the baby makes an appearance.

The young whales are very curious, and can be attracted to the boat if you slap your hand on the water to get their attention.

It’s said to be a life-changing experience to look a whale in the eye; this baby came up to our boat and Deborah was able to touch it and look it in the eye.  This young one is about 1-1/2 months old.  An adult gray whale has eyes the size of baseballs.

Shown here is the skull of an adult gray whale that was found dead on the beach.

This skull is approximately 7 feet long.  You can see that the upper jaw is slightly longer than the lower. 

Also, you can see that gray whales do not have teeth.  Instead, they have “baleen”  - which they use to sift their food.

The village has a full whale skeleton on display.