Monday, August 2, 2010

The whales of San Ignacio

A report in the Daily Mail alerted me to the existence of the friendly gray whales of San Ignacio in Mexico, of which I'd never heard before. Intrigued, I looked for more information, and found this article.

It was early one morning in February, 1972, when Mayoral and his partner Santo Luis Perez set out to fish in Laguna San Ignacio. Hundreds of gray whales were swimming in the three-mile-long, one-mile-wide inlet. This was usual between December and April, for the whales breed and calve in the protected inlets of Baja, the final destination of their annual 6,000-mile migration from the Arctic. Mayoral and Perez stayed as far as possible from the spouting creatures because the whales were said to smash boats with their powerful flukes. Mayoral, who had 16 years' experience at sea, knew of no one who had been close to a health gray whale and lived.

As Mayoral rowed to catch the outgoing tide, he saw, straight ahead, a whale approaching. Heart pounding, the wiry 31-year-old turned the little wooden boat and pulled hard for shore. Try as he might, however, he could not outrow the huge beast. In moments, it overtook them. Expecting the worst, the fishermen dropped to their knees and made the sign of the cross. The whale raised its nine-foot head out of the water and looked at them. Then, remarkably, it began to rub gently against the boat.

Sinking and resurfacing on opposite sides of the boat, the whale continued its gentle nuzzling for almost an hour. At first the men prayed, frozen in fear. But gradually, Mayoral's terror gave way to curiosity. He was tempted to reach out and touch this oddly unthreatening monster, but a lifetime of caution kept him still.

At last, finished with whatever its purpose had been, the whale disappeared below the surface. Some time passed before either man spoke. Then they headed home. To his wife, Mayoral said only, "No fish today."

But word spread through the cluster of small wooden shacks edging the lagoon. A miracle of sorts had happended; one of the whales had tried to touch the men, and the men had returned unharmed. Why?

In nights to come, by flickering kerosene lamps, Mayoral and Perez told the story. They and other fishermen struggled to understand. What did the whale want?

For Millennia, California gray whales had wintered in Baja's isolated lagoons, unbothered by natural enemies. Then, in 1845, two whalers sailed into Baja's Magdalena Bay and discovered that it was a breeding sanctuary for the migrating whales.

The grays, however, were not easy prey. Protective females were demonic defenders of their newborns, charging whaling boats and injuring or killing crew members. Whalers had dangerous encounters with other types of whales, but the grays were the only ones they called Devil Fish.

One Yankee whaler, Captain Charles Scammon, recounted in his 1856 Magdalena Bay journal another captain's experience, "We were chasing a cow and calf when the boat-steerer sung out: 'Cap'n, I've killed the calf, and the old cow is after us!" I sung out to the men to pull for the shore if they loved their lives; and when the boats struck the beach, I told all hands to climb trees."

In the end, the grays were no match for their hunters. The whalers blocked Baja's lagoons and turned them into giant traps. What followed was a methodical slaughter that made the once-quiet sanctuaries run red with the blood of dying whales. Their carcasses were floated to the beach, and blubber was boiled on the spot for oil. Whalebone and baleen were hauled aboard ships to be sold for corset stays, brushes and umbrella spokes. As petroleum eventually replaced whale oil as fuel, the gray were killed primarily to be sold as pet food.

By 1946, when international agreements finally protected the California grays against commercial whaling, it was extimated as few as 500 of the magnificent mammals remained.

Over the following decades, Baja's lagoons became refuges once more. The only humans who shared the whales' quiet breeding grounds were fishermen in small boats. The gray whale population rebounded to 24,000 animals - almost as many as there were before the commercial whalers arrived. Subsequently, in June 1994, the California gray whale became the first marine mammal to be removed from the U.S. list of endangered species.

So isolated is Laguna San Ignacio - even today, it is without telephones, electricity or running water - that word of Jose Francisco Mayoral's strange encounter did not reach the outside world. Then in February, 1976, the Salado, a whalewatching excursion boat from San Diego, anchored in Laguna San Ignacio. A 30-foot adolescent whale approached and began playing with the rubber dinghies tethered off its stern. The captain and others climbed into the dinghies for a closer look. Finally they dared to pat the seven-ton youngster. The following day, it returned for more. For the next month it continued making contact.

The fantastic news brought scientists flocking. During the next five years, encounters with friendly whales increased dramatically. Each year more scientists were on the water and more whales would approach. Gradually, the fishermen who initially thought the scientists were crazy, came to be the most frequent acquaintances of the giants they had feared for so long. The special group of gray whales that consistently sought our human contact came to be known as "the friendlies". Many with distinct personalities were even given names - Margie, Scarback, Mancha, Bopper and Amazing Grace.

. . .

Adventure travelers, science museums and wildlife groups have organized trips to visit Laguna San Ignacio. Contact with the whales is governed by strict rules. With few exceptions, local fisherman are the only ones the Mexican government allows to put boats on the lagoon. Many of them serve as guides during the winter whale season. Special areas in the northern half of the lagoon are off-limits to all except the whales and their calves. Rules are enforced by onshore government observers with high-powered telescopes - and by the fishermen.

Why are the whales approaching us? What do they want?

Jim Sumich, a San Diego-based expert on the migratory patterns of gray whales, notes that except for whalers, peoples have avoided these great animals throughout history. Perhaps the notoriously curious creatures might have made contact long ago, had we allowed it.

Scientists agree that all cetaceans - dolphins, toothed whales and baleen whales - are highly sensitive to touch. Perhaps the whales' initial curiosity about people was rewarded by the pleasurable sensation of being stroked, and this sparked repeated contacts.

Is that what the whales are getting out of this? A good scratch, nothing more? When asked, fishermen who spend their days with the whales have another answer: they like us.

"It is more than touch," Mayoral says with quiet conviction. Jose' Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist for Mexico's National Institute of Ecology agrees. He believes the grays are curious and intelligent, with a delightful sense of play. Baby whales will often push their sleeping mothers around the lagoons. So why wouldn't they have the intelligence - and gentleness - to twirl our boats like bathtub toys? That's what Bruce Mate, director of the Endowed Marine Mammal Research programs at Oregon State University, suggests.

Regardless of who is right, we seem to have crossed a frontier with another species, another world. And, remarkably, the contact was initiated not by us, but by the whales.

There's more at the link.

What a remarkable story! I'd never heard about these whales before now . . . but after reading the article, and seeing the pictures there and in the Daily Mail report, I think I have another destination to put on my list of "things I want to see before I die".

Here's a short video clip of the whales of San Ignacio.

There are many more such clips on YouTube, if you're interested.



Jim March said...

I too grew up around the grays.

My family sport-fished off the coast of San Mateo County, California, mostly out of Princeton Harbor between the towns of Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. We ran small boats in the 14-16ft range, often pretty far out to sea. We saw them migrate twice a year, once northbound, once south, mostly in the 1970s-80s.

We knew all about the "devilfish" reputation, but we understood that this was really only a problem if you managed to hurt one. We also knew about the back-rubbing-against-boat thing, but we assumed they were scratching barnacles off. The main point was, if there was ANY possibility of that happening, you cut your engine and pulled your lines up PRONTO because if they thought you were out to hurt them in any way, shape or form, yeah, they'll kill you. And understand, all it takes is knocking you in the water - look up something called the "Humboldt current". That water was COLD - life jacket or not, anything past 15 to 20 minutes meant you were dead.

The other issue we knew about was the scouts.

As the pod travels up or down the coast, the main body has the biggest male, all the females and all the young (varying ages). In pairs, ranging up to 20 miles ahead of, behind and to the sides of the main pod were the scouts - mostly the "teenage" males, some younger females as well. Their job is to check out threats to the main pod and if they find any...attack.

And yes, they communicate with each other over those distances.

Several times we were checked out by scout pairs. Lines UP FAST and either move away to the side or if they're too close for that, cut the motor.

Basically, it's exactly as if they're a Secret Service presidential protection detail. Picture whales with curly wires going into their ears, suits and subguns. It's like that: you're being checked out and you'd best pass inspection.

Moving away seemed to signal that you didn't want to tangle and they'd accept that as an answer - we were never chased and never talked to anybody who was. We were simply inspected at a range as little as 10ft. The "vibes" we got were that they didn't want petting - they were all business and eyes out of the water looking right at us.

I believe those are VERY, very intelligent critters and...well, sentience is not impossible. So alien we can't even begin to wrap our heads around it. I would bet good money their brains exceed chimps, gorillas and the like - their social structure is if anything far more organized.

Mikael said...

Definitely an addition to my bucket list... with a caveat. I want to go diving with them.

LabRat said...

For a somewhat bloodier but more involved pact between humans and cetaceans, read up on the Eden, Australia orcas. Orcas hunt other whales and in this case they formed something of a partnership with the local small-scale whalers.

I believe firmly that some whale species, orcas and grays among them, are more than intelligent enough to recognize us as another intelligence and be curious about that. I also believe they are massive top predators and that prevents me from wanting to get into the water with them, but I'm cautious like that. :)

If I've got alcohol in my hand and we are talking in person sometime, ask me what I think of marine parks for a show...

Glenn B said...

I have heard of the gray whales before and seen films of them coming up to boats and allowing people to touch them. I thought the practice of allowing folks so close had been stopped but i guess not if that article and video are recent.

I wish I had known about this when I lived in CA from 1979-1983.

All the best,
Glenn B

Unknown said...

To think these asshole japanese kill thousands of these whales a year, for "reasearch"

they slaughter them seems they havent come far mentality from ww2 time, they are just as brutal and harsh as ever