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The whales of Baja California

A close encounter with these giants can be an enlightening and moving experience

Satyajit Das
Published: Jan 21, 2015 06:07:58 AM IST
Updated: Jan 20, 2015 05:59:00 PM IST
The whales of Baja California
Image: Mark Carwardine / Barcroft Media / Getty Images
An aerial view of a whale getting close to a boat in the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of California

Like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, I too was in search of a whale. But it was a blue whale, not a white sperm whale, and I am not seeking revenge for the loss of my ship and leg at the hands of the creature. But, like Ahab, it has been a long quest, spanning 14 years.

The quest started on Sunday, January 30, 1994, in the Antarctic. We were sailing on a Russian ice-breaker in the Amundsen Sea. Most people had gone down to dinner. A couple of us were still on the bridge. We all saw it almost simultaneously: A huge spout from a whale, a very large whale. By the time we got closer, it had sounded and dived. All we saw were enormous fluke prints, the impression that whales leave on the water when they dive. It could only be a blue whale, the largest existing animal to inhabit the Earth.

It made me determined to see a blue whale well.

The First Encounter
Fourteen years later, we join 50 travellers on a 14-day photographic expedition on the MV Sea Lion—organised by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions—which would cover more than 1,000 nautical miles in and around the Gulf of California.
Our voyage hits an almost immediate hitch. The captain abandons plans to travel to Laguna San Ignacio, one of the major sites where gray whales congregate to give birth and breed. He wants to avoid a storm and subjecting the ancient mariners—my partner Jade and I, both in our fifties, are well below the average age of 70—to “ocean motion”.

We divert to Bahia Magdalena, located on the Pacific side of Baja and protected by a narrow 60-mile island with enormous sand dunes which extend right to the sea. In the northern part of Bahia, we are relieved to see the blows of whales; a number of mothers and calves are still there.

Gray whales are around 15 metres long and weigh around 35,000 kg. They are baleen whales, equipped with a unique filtration system made up of hundreds of individual plates (called baleen) that sieve and filter small prey from large volumes of sea water pumped through them.

These eastern gray whales are mottled grey, with a narrow triangular head. They spend winter in Baja, California, travelling in spring to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, a round trip of up to 11,000 km, the longest migration of any mammal. At Bahia Magdalena, the females give birth, nursing their young until they are strong enough to travel north.

From our zodiacs—small rubber speed boats holding around 10 people—we get closer to the whales. The gray whales of Baja live up their reputation of friendliness: A mother and calf approach our zodiac, swimming around and under our craft, sometimes rubbing their backs on the underside of the vessel. The whales repeatedly surface alongside the zodiac, allowing people to touch them.

At water level, the size of the whales is immediately evident, dwarfing our zodiac. The whale’s strength and power is apparent when they bump our craft. They are gentle, but with little more than a flick of their massive tails they could upend the boat.

Their eyes are visible as they spy hop, rising and holding their head out of the water to see. A huge, gentle and calm eye fixes onto mine for a few seconds. The whales’ blow is loud. The air under high pressure hits me. A mist of sea water and mucus refracts the light into rainbows. It smells of rotten cabbage—whale halitosis.

The whales of Baja California
Image: De Agostini / Getty Images

The calf likes being touched, which must be similar to the constant nuzzling and reassurance provided by its mother. The whales choose whether to approach the boat or stay away, irrespective of attempts to attract them. I watch a mother gently nudge a calf towards our zodiac. After a few minutes, the mother pushes the calf away, directing it to deeper water.

The calves must gain hundreds of kilos each week on a diet of rich milk and build up their strength. In a few days, they will begin the perilous journey north, facing the challenges of the ocean and predators, especially the orcas, killer whales.

The interaction is deeply spiritual. I watch anxious hands reach into the water seeking to touch the whales.

Meanwhile, on Land…
At Lands’ End, where a rock arch marks the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, we turn east and then north, entering the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

Some 5 million years ago, tectonic forces caused the Baja peninsula to break off from the North American Plate, creating the Gulf. Underneath the water, the East Pacific Rise runs along the seabed creating the volcanism that has resulted in many of the over 200 islands.

Over the next 10 days we sail through the rich seas, favouring areas known for marine life and visiting a number of islands.

The contrast of sea and desert makes for a dramatic landscape. Rock formations sculpted by wind, water and time create what writer Bruce Berger called “an oasis of stone”.  The islands, some volcanic, have high levels of endemism, life which has evolved uniquely and is found nowhere else. The dominant vegetation is agave, prickly pear cacti, barrel cactus and grand Cardon cactus, some of which is in bloom.

There are several species of lizards, including pinto chuckwallas and spiny tail iguanas. An endemic (if tautological) rattlesnake without a rattle lies curled under cactus and brush on Isla Catalina. We see coyotes and donkeys but not the famed black jack rabbit.

The bird life is rich: At sea, there are frigatebirds, different types of gulls, pelicans and blue-footed and brown boobies. The tiny (142 acre) Isla Rasa is the nesting site of 95 percent of the world’s population of Heermann’s gulls, elegant terns and a small group of royal terns. The elegant terns are beautiful, with long, slender orange bills, pale grey upperparts and white underparts. Their distinctive black crests extend from the crown through the eye, creating a small black smudge in front of the eye, reminiscent of a punk rocker.

On land, keen birders record two endemic species: The Xanthus’s hummingbird and Belding’s yellowthroat.

Off the peninsula, a peregrine falcon swoops past us at characteristic great speed, taking an eared grebe from the water and flying off, grasping the dead bird in its talons.

The whole event took just a few seconds, leaving the naturalist and me looking at each other to seek confirmation of what we thought we just saw.

Back at Sea

The sea is highly productive because of prevailing winds, ocean conditions and its great depth, more than 3,000 metres in parts. Cold, nutrient rich waters rise from the depths providing the building blocks of a rich and complex ecosystem.

Snorkelling in the bracing 18 degree Celsius waters reveals king angel fish, blue and gold snapper, giant damselfish, sea stars and sea urchins. At Los Islotes, a rock outcrop, snorkellers can swim with playful Californian sea lions.

The whales of Baja California
Image: Indiapicture
A group of common dolphin (delphinus delphis) jumps out of the water in the Sea of Cortez

Pacific white-sided, common and bottlenose dolphins are regular companions, delighting us as they bow ride. Near Isla San Francisco, we come across a feeding frenzy focussed around a bait ball, where small fish swarm in a tightly packed spherical formation as a last-ditch defensive measure against predators. The sea surface boils with around 1,000 dolphins which are attacking the smaller fish. Overhead, pelicans and boobies plunge dive to pick off fish scattered by the dolphins.
Magnificent frigate birds swoop down to pluck fish from the surface. The episode lasts 20 to 30 minutes.

The Big Blue
Blue whales are true leviathans: 30 metres long and 180,000 kg in weight, a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant, an aorta that a man can swim through, and daily consumption of up to 3 million calories, equivalent to 8,000 kg or 8 million krill (a small shrimp-like crustacean).

Near dusk, in the Pacific near Land’s End, we see their towering blows, which thunder up some 30 metres into the air and are audible for several kilometres. There are around eight individuals travelling quickly, making it difficult to get close.

In the Gulf itself, we see an adult a few metres off the bow. As the krill are near the surface, the blue whale makes frequent shallow dives to feed, offering us spectacular views. The huge, mottled blue-grey body is two thirds the length of our 46-metre long ship. The flat head and prominent blow holes are clear. It takes large breaths at intervals of 20 to 30 seconds, and then dives for periods of up to five to six minutes, its long back rolling over slowly with the small hook-shaped dorsal fin set well back coming into view before the massive tail fluke is visible.

Few blue whales fluke, that is raise their tail clearly out of the water when diving. On our trip, we encounter both fluking and non-fluking blue whales, causing animated discussion amongst the naturalists about the reasons for this difference.

On another day, we are fortunate to see a mother and calf: The baby is 7 metres and over 3,500 kg. It drinks up to 100 litres of milk, growing 4 cm and 90 kg each day. The mother and calf sail with us for almost an hour, causing the travellers to experience new paroxysms of delight. Given that only the back of the whale and its tail is ever visible, the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ that emanate from the whale watchers and the almost hypnotic engagement speaks to a deep connection with these creatures that is not easy to explain.

Off Gorda Banks, near the entrance to the Gulf, we see several humpback whales, the amiable 16-metre long, 40,000 kg ambassadors of cetaceans, familiar for their acrobatic breaches, singing and long migrations. A female travelling with her calf is shadowed by an escort, a male that has fought off competitors to be best positioned for mating rights. The escort shows the white scar tissue over the dorsal fin and tail typical from such fights. The ships hydrophones allow us to listen in on a variety of whale sounds but not the full humpback song.

We see a number of fin whales, easily identifiable by their tall columnar blow and dark bodies. Only slightly smaller than the blues (24 metres) but much lighter (120,000 kg), the sleek, fish-eating fins are capable of bursts of speed of up to 25 knots. The lower jaw is white on the right side, thought useful in hunting. Fins have been seen feeding in circles with their white side on the inside to frighten prey into a tight bait ball.

We see smaller Bryde’s whales, another baleen whale that uniquely does not migrate but spends much of their lives in warm tropical waters. Off Isla San Marcos, a large pod of short-finned pilot whales, a member of the dolphin family, is seen. On cue, one of the pilot whales breaches, hurling himself out of the water and landing with a large splash.

The whales of Baja California
Image: Getty Images
Elegant terns fly over rocks during breeding season

Near a deep ocean trench off Isla San Pedro Martir, a pod of sperm whales, Captain Ahab’s nemesis, rests on the surface. They are the largest toothed whales with a huge square head (one third of its body length) and brown crinkly skin. Their blow is unique, angled at 45 degrees and to the side.

Sperm whales are the deepest-diving mammal, capable of plunging 3,000 metres in search of octopus, rays, small sharks, fish and squid, including the fabled giant squid. Through the ship’s hydrophone, we can hear the whales’ characteristics clicks, which can reach 230 decibels underwater, used for communicating or echo-locating prey.

Under clear skies and bright sunlight, each sighting provides individual travellers with memorable personal moments. The photographers rush about, enthusiastically exposing tens of thousands of frames. For others, each encounter is a meditation on the harsh and complex beauty of Baja California and its inhabitants.

Devil Fish?
On the last afternoon, we sail towards La Paz where we will disembark. In the distance, a whale blows.

Man’s relationship with whales is ambiguous. They were feared or considered an inexhaustible resource, hunted to the edge of extinction. Since 1900, whalers have killed hundreds of thousands of blue whales, fin whales, humpbacks and sperm whales. Now less than 5,000 blue whales, an unknown number of fin whales, 40,000 humpbacks and around 10,000 sperm whales are left.

In the name of research or native rights, Japan, Norway, Iceland and some other countries still hunt whales. Decimated populations face threats from ocean pollution, climate change and commercial fishing, which reduce their food sources.
Industrial scale harvesting of tiny krill is under way to meet inexhaustible human needs for food and (supposedly) health-giving fish oils.

Yet, we still know so little about the biology, feeding habits, family structures and life cycles of the great whales. We know so little about their astonishing capabilities. For instance, blue whales may use layers of water in the deep ocean of differing temperature and salinity to communicate with each other over thousands of miles.

Highly concentrated in their easily accessible birthing lagoons, there are only 26,000 vulnerable gray whales left. Given this bloody history, I wonder why the gray whales of Baja now seek out humans, even guiding their calves towards whale watchers.

According to a legend, in 1972, a Mexican fisherman Francisco Mayoral, known as Pachico, was fishing with a friend, when approached by a female gray whale who, despite their attempts, to manoeuvre clear followed them.

The whale circled the boat and, at one point, lifted the boat clear out of the water. Pachico feared the whale would smash the boat and kill the two occupants. Then, the female spy-hopped to look directly at Pachico, eye to eye, for a long time.
Finally, Pachico reached across and touched her tentatively and then more firmly. The whale remained, floating gently.

It was as if the gray whales, once known as ‘devil fish’ because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young from predators, had made their peace with humans.

John Steinbeck in his travelogue The Log from the Sea of Cortez asked:  “Why do we so dread to think of our species as a species? Can it be that we are afraid of what we may find?” In learning to respect these massive and mysterious creatures and the environment they live in, we may find the better part of ourselves.

(This story appears in the 23 January, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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