By Cheryl Veldhuisen
A favorite activity for boaters in California is taking a trip off the coast to see migrating gray whales.
These 45-foot-long, 35-ton mammals spend the summer months (June through September) feeding in the Arctic Ocean by scooping up mouthfuls of the ocean floor, straining out the unwanted mud and water through their baleens, and eating the remaining krill and tiny amphipods.
In the fall (October through February), they travel south to spend the winter months (December through April) in the Baja lagoons mating, giving birth and caring for new calves. They travel back north in the spring (March through May), and the cycle begins again. Their round-trip migration covers 10,000 miles.
At the end of February, my husband, Adriaan, and I joined a group whale-watching safari put together by Andiamo Travel. We traveled two days by bus to Guerrero Negro, where we had our first encounter with gray whales. In the early morning, we took pangas out on Scammon’s Lagoon (Laguna Ojo de Liebre). We traveled farther south to San Ignacio and went out on Laguna de San Ignacio twice the next day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. On the trip back north, we stopped once more in Guerrero Negro for an afternoon out on Scammon’s Lagoon.
Male whales visit the lagoons to mate and aren’t interested in strange creatures in boats, unlike the baby whales (2,000 pounds at birth) and their mamas. The mothers and babies have a close relationship, and you never see one without the other. Usually the baby swims up alongside the boat. Sometimes a mother swims under her baby and pushes it up, as if showing it off. One mom came close enough for us to pet her, but she didn’t stay long.
We witnessed other whale behaviors up close including sleeping, spy-hopping and breaching. Spy-hopping is when a whale puts its head straight up out of the water for about 30 seconds then slides back under, amazingly without making a sound or leaving ripples in the water. Breaching is when the whale bursts out of the water, showing about three-fourths of its body, and falls back in with a big splash.
When we went out on the lagoon in the early afternoon, we got to experience the whales’ “siesta time.” In the lagoons, the whales sleep at the surface. Gray whales have knuckles on their backs, and when you look around the lagoon, it looks like bumpy logs are floating at the surface.
To give the babies time to grow and increase in strength, the mother and baby whales are the last to migrate back north. Once they leave the lagoons, orca whales, their main predator, wait just outside to catch a meal. The fiercely protective mother whales do everything they can to protect their babies, but only about one-third of the calves survive to make it back to the lagoons the next year.
Hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s and 1900s, gray whales were added to the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and their population is estimated at about 26,000. Lagoon visits are strictly regulated and only available through approved companies.
Although we will never tire of seeing a whale spout off in the distance, it cannot match the experience of seeing them up close, having them swim right under your boat and getting a chance to pet them. During our trip, we had beautiful weather and great company, but the most magical part was spending time so close to these gentle giants.
Cheryl and Adriaan Veldhuisen are long-time members of the San Luis Rey Sail & Power Squadron/28. They enjoy California coastal sailing on their Catalina 380, L’Esprit, which is docked at the Southwestern Yacht Club in San Diego.