Whales of Baja

 

Although many people think “gray whales” when they think "Baja" due to the gray whales’ friendly natures and summer birthing schedules in shallow lagoons, many whales actually frequent the waters of Baja California. Besides the annual visitation of gray whales, Baja is also called on by blue whales, sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, orcas, and minke whale.

 

VAQUITA

The smallest of all whales porpoises, or dolphins, the vaquita is also known as the gulf porpoise

and cochito. On average, an adult reaches only 1.3 meters, and newly born calves are only around 60 centimeters long. These creatures are not only the smallest of their kind, but they are the most endangered of all marine species. As such, these tiny creatures are enormously important.

Vaquitas have not been “known” to the world for very long as they were discovered in 1958—a briefly recognized existence that makes their precarious position on the edge of extinction even sadder. If you do not recognize them by their petite size, you search for other distinguishing factors. They have a large dark ring around their eyes as well as dark patches on their lips that form a line extending from their mouth to their pectoral fins. Their overall skin color ranges from dark to pale gray. The few that are left are found close to the shore as they enjoy shallower waters.

Partly due to their size, they are often drowned or caught in gillnets popularly used by illegal fishing operations. There are believed to be less than 100 vaquitas left, and more than half of the population has been lost in the last 3 years. Sadly, the World Wildlife Foundation estimates a possible extinction by 2018 unless the ban against gillnet fisheries is more strongly enforced. Hopefully, the quickly diminishing population of these diminutive whales begins to swell with the intense efforts of conservationists. Few whales can be described as cute or handheld, and the world should hold on to those that can.

 

Blue Whale

BLUE WHALE

Blue whales favor colder water, and so they travel to the Sea of Cortez during winter along with Humpback whales. Unlike the friendly gray whales, they tend to stick to the deeper areas of the Sea of Cortez, although they can often be found around the islands near Loreto.

Blue whales are in many ways a factoid gold mine. Most iconically, they are the largest animals to have ever existed on earth; they can reach up to 100 feet in length and weigh over 200 tons. During trivia games, you may have heard rightly that the tongue of a blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant while its heart can weigh as much as a car. These creatures may be colossal, but their weight does not drag them down. They cruise along at five miles an hour but can reach top speeds of over 20 mph if need arises. Blue whales obviously do not suffer from negative health effects associated with their immense weight either. They are some of the longest living creatures on earth with an average lifespan of 80-90 years, and one blue whale was aged to perfection at 110 years old.

Perhaps most interesting is how incredibly loud blue whales can be—one of the loudest on the planet. They emit moans, buzzing and pulses that can be concussive and felt more than they are heard--at least on the human register of hearing. Fellow blue whales can hear each other when around 1,000 miles away. Scientists believe that the sounds are not only a form of communication but sonar to help them navigate the dark depths of the oceans.

Fin Whale

FIN WHALE

The fin whale has the honor of being the second largest animal in the world next to the iconic blue whale. The fin whale has its own honorary title as the “greyhound of the sea,” however, due to its ability to burst into high speeds (or at least high speeds for a great whale), reaching 25 miles per hour. You can recognize them by their distinct ridge lining their back that has also given them the name “razorback.”

Like other fellow great whales, the fin whales migrate from Alaska and Antarctica to warmer waters during the winter for mating and calving. They are also baleen whales, meaning they have hundreds of overlapping plates that allow them to capture food while expelling water.

Unlike gray whales, fin whales are usually found in pods of 2-7 and usually prefer the deeper sea areas. Due to their preference for the deep open sea, they were able to escape early whalers until they were targeted after the blue whale’s near-extinction. After the fin whales suffered heavy losses from the 1930s-1960s, the International Whaling Commission placed them under full protection. Now, the fin whale’s only non-human predators are orcas.

FUN FACT:

Fin whales are also known for their interesting feeding tactics, as they tend to circle large schools of fish at “greyhound” speed until the fish form a compact ball. Then, the fin whales are able to quickly turn and capture their prey. In fact, scientists believe that the fin whales’ asymmetrical jaw color—being grey or black on the left and creamy white on the right—is an evolutionary tool for such a strategy.

Gray Whale

GRAY WHALE

Baja’s whales remain one of tourism’s biggest drives, and Baja’s shores remain an instinctive migratory drive for Gray Whales. Gray whales are coastal whales who comb through the ocean floor for their food rather than searching for swimming plankton, and so it is no surprise that they enjoy feasting in Baja’s rich waters.

Gray whales are also not the prettiest of whales, and they can resemble a rough ocean rock with their barnacle and parasite covered skin. Their barnacle ridden skin is so distinct and distinctive that the various barnacle patterns are used by scientists to identify individual whales. Though they may not be sleek Orcas that so easily entrance they eye, they are friendly creatures who are known for approaching boats and boosting up their young to be petted by humans. In Baja, where the gray whales roam, these amicable creatures love to frolic and play.

Gray whales visit Baja from mid-December to early May, a warm-weather retreat from the chilly waters of Siberia and a long migratory passage. During their migration from Alaska, gray whales maintain a specific order of procession. The female whales in advances stages of pregnancy lead the way, followed by mothers with their yearlings in tow. Small pods of young females chaperoned by adolescent and adults males take the rear in this instinctive train.

Once the gray whales reach Baja’s balmy waters, “single” gray whales indulge in romantic pursuits. Once cow usually finds herself courted by two bulls, and human spectators can witness their games of love that usually result in an impressive array of acrobatics and somersaults above the surface.

Pregnant cows search out Baja’s shallow lagoons where they can give birth around 30 feet below the surface. It’s a social event, and baby whales are often greeted by other whales who welcome them into the world. The babies enjoy Baja’s warmer temperatures due to their lack of insulating blubber, and so their time in Baja is often spent gaining weight so they can be properly insulated for the colder trek north.

Three Baja lagoons have gained celebrity for their whale concentration: Bahia Magdalena/Bahia Almejas, Laguna Ojo de Liebre (otherwise known as Scammon’s Lagoon), and Laguna San Ignacio. Visit one of these whale watching hotspots on your Baja excursion!