I am lucky enough to have three whale watching jobs in different parts of the world. I often get asked which is my favourite and the best place to see whales, and although all of them are great some days and not so good other days (all dependent on the whales and very dependent on the weather), the most amazing whale watching in the world has to be in the Mexican breeding lagoons for Gray Whales. I work for Whale Magic Tours in Ojo de Liebre in Baja California Sur. The season runs from late January to late March.
The Gray Whales used to be known as ‘devil fish’ in the old whaling days, when they were one of the most aggressive species of whale, killing many whalers trying to hunt them in the Mexican lagoons. We got very close to making Gray Whales extinct twice, but after a few decades of protection they started to show an incredible level of forgiveness. In the 1970s the first documented ‘friendly’ experience happened when a Gray Whale was rubbing on and playing with a fishing panga. The local fishermen were at first terrified of these huge whales, 14m long, playing with their small boats. However, over time we have realized that there is no aggression in the whales and they are probably just curious about the pangas due to the sound the engine makes, similar to a Gray Whale, and because they have a lot of time on their hands in the breeding lagoons. The mothers give birth to large, curious calves, who while in Mexico are well fed by Mum and have a lot of mammal curiosity, as well as time and energy. Only once they leave the lagoons and start their long migration to Alaska to feed do the young whales face predators (Orcas) and lose interest in boats.
It really is the most incredible experience in nature to meet a ‘friendly’ Gray Whale. Photographs don’t really do the encounters justice, but I can’t help but try! Although it is a very bad idea to ever touch a wild animal, you cannot make a whale friendly. This is a totally unique behaviour shown by Gray Whales in these Mexican lagoons and I feel they have to be the exception to the rule. The friendly Grays have become ambassadors for their species, as well as all whales as you will never feel the same about whales after looking one in the eye as it plays with your boat.
Gray Whales were also the first species to be taken off the endangered species list, so we know that these interactions have not done the whales any harm. When they leave the lagoons they become ‘normal’ whales again and are more interested in their survival than in us, which shows that this behaviour is totally unique to Mexico and has not habituated them to boats, putting them in danger elsewhere. To Mexico’s credit they have done an incredible job protecting the breeding lagoons and only local fishermen are allowed to drive boats around the whales, ensuring professionalism and a deep love of the animals they make a living from. This also means that fixed fishing gear is not used during the whale season, giving the fishermen an income while protecting the whales from entanglement. It is a win win situation!