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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Las Ballenas Amistosas - Day 2 in Baja

While Laguna San Ignacio is an incredible place to experience in its own right, there's one phenomenon that occurs here that make it a must-visit place for any cetacean lover: Las Ballenas Amistosas, or the Friendly Whales.

In the 1970s, in the very same lagoons where they were almost hunted to extinction, gray whales started becoming friendly with humans. Animals started approaching fishing boats, showing what appeared to be in a mutual curiosity in us, and local fishermen discovered that the whales were willing (and perhaps even enjoyed) being touched. Given what they have experienced as a species at the hand of humans, it's an especially remarkable turn of events.

Naturalists say about 10% of the gray whales are "friendly" (does that make the other 90% aloof, I wonder?) Despite what you see on the travel brochures, an encounter with a friendly whale is not a given (no wildlife encounter ever is). With what we witnessed while we were there, it seemed like fewer whales were friendly than anticipated, most likely because it was early in the season and they were engaged in either pursuing (or attempting to evade) a mate or taking care of a very young calf. Mothers with calves tend to be more likely to be friendly, with moms often urging their babies over towards the pangas, but this happens more often when the calves are a few weeks older than when we were there. I wonder if really it's the moms looking for a break from taking care of their exuberant growing babies, taking advantage of us willing human babysitters to catch an extra nap before the long migration north!

We certainly got close to whales on Day 1, but my hopes were still high for touching one, and it didn't take long on the morning whale watch of Day 2 to get very near to whales again. Our first encounter of the day was with a very playful mom and calf. They certainly seemed interested in us, but again didn't quite come close enough to interact directly, perhaps because the calf was still so young. Here's a shot of the baby using mom's back like a slide - you're seeing the calf's tail as it disappears on the far side of its mother:

They were close enough to us that for the first time I got out the handheld underwater camera I got specifically for this trip. Even though they were only 10 yards or so away, the waters proved too murky for the whales to show up. I liked the effects I got in the water shots anyway, though.

Camera being lowered underwater
I like this underwater shot, even without a whale in it - shows how rich these waters are with microorganisms
The mama whales all looked very broad - a good sign that they're carrying enough fat reserves to both feed their calves and make it back to their northern feeding grounds. Mom's dispense milk that's 53% fat to their growing babies, all while having nothing to eat. She'll lose about a third of her body weight before reaching the feeding grounds again.

Big mama
People are so enamored with whales and so desiring of a close encounter that they will try anything to beckon the whales closer. We all at one point or another splashed the surface of the water, trying to attract their attention. There are a whole range of other superstitions, too - a popular one at our whale camp, led by our American naturalist guides, was the shaking of a bag of Jolly Rancher candies. Supposedly "scientifically proven" by an eight year-old, after shaking the bag, the driver gets offered a candy first, then all the passengers. The debate is ongoing as to how effective this method is, but my opinion was solidified by the next whale we met. Nothing you do is going to make an uninterested whale come over to you. You don't choose the whale, the whale chooses you.

A nicknamed this whale White Head, and unlike any of the other whales we encountered, when he saw us, he made a beeline straight for us.

White Head - The Whale That Chose Us
He swam directly at us and stopped right by the side of the boat, rolling over to be touched. Here is a photo I like to call "First Contact", as we reach out to touch him (that's my hand in the middle):

Contact was made:

I've touched a dolphin before, and it felt firm, like a wet rubber tire. Gray whales were surprisingly squishy, like you could grab a handful of them. It's also amazing that something that comes out of the frigid ocean waters feels so warm.

I actually think this may have been a juvenile whale, but he sure seemed big next to our 22-foot panga. You can't get much closer than this:

This time, the whale was definitely close enough for some underwater shots. I took about 200 of them, clicking away randomly, but the payoff was huge. I got what I call my dream shot, an underwater view of a whale's eye. Probably my favorite whale picture from the trip.

Here's a similar view when both whale and camera were above the surface. See the eye?

I really love the abstract nature of the following shot, where just a few inches of water is covering the whale's head. You can still see his eye here, but it's closed.

You may have noticed by now that these gray whales are covered with a lot of "stuff". Slower moving than the killer whales I usually photograph, grays get latched onto by both barnacles and whale lice. There's actually a species of barnacle specific to gray whales, and it breeds in the lagoons at the same time the whales do - it never ceases to amaze me how ingenious nature is. In between the barnacles are the pink whale lice, most of them about the size of the dime. Here's a look at both from underwater:

White Head went back and forth between us and another boat a couple of times. Each time he left our boat, he did this backing-up head raise out of the water. I know it's anthropomorphizing, but it sure felt like it was his way of saying, "See ya later."

White Head says "See ya!"
Another panga interacting with White Head
When we and he went our separate ways, he breached three times! He sure seemed like a happy whale. It's this full-body shot that makes me think he's a juvenile - what do you think?

The best breach shot of the trip
This was an amazing enough encounter in itself, but as we slowly started motoring back towards camp, we came across another friendly! This one, a female, seemed like she may have been using us to try and shake off a male pursuer, who remained nearby but didn't come over to interact with us. Whatever her motives may have been, we were sure grateful to meet her. Here's a shot that shows me face to face with her:

And here's the photo I was taking in that moment:

I also got some neat underwater shots of some other whale body parts during this encounter:

Side and pec fin
Skin and barnacles
I could have spent the rest of the day savoring that incredible morning whale encounter, but there was too much else to see! Right when we got back to camp, it was time for a desert plant walk. Quite a few of the cacti and other plants looked more or less dead except for their bright flowering parts. We were getting the English, Spanish, and Latin names for each species, so I'm afraid I got a bit muddled and am not entirely sure what this one is, but it's fruits were edible and tasted (according to others) like strawberries:

I could have sworn this next one was called Adam's bush, but I can't seem to find anything by that name. It was mostly dry wood but had these intricate little red flowers, proof it was still alive:

Then it was lunch, and back out on the water for our second whale watch of the day - what a life, right?!

The highlight of this trip turned out to be some smaller cetaceans - a quartet of bow-riding bottlenose dolphins that stayed with us for a good ten minutes or so!

They were with us long enough I decided to try and get some underwater shots of them. This proved more difficult, because both the panga and them were moving, and I was higher away from the water at the bow of the boat. Most shots just captured water motion - I like to think this is what it must look like to a dolphin when it bow-rides:

I did get a few shots of the actual dolphins, or at least parts of them:

Bottlenose dolphins tails
Half hanging off the front of the moving panga, I got thoroughly drenched, but as you can tell from this shot immediately after, I couldn't have been happier. That Baja smile pretty much never left my face the whole time we were there:

Oh yeah, there were of course gray whales around all over the place again too :)

The beginning of the tell-tale "heart-shaped" blow of a gray whale, caused by it's angled dual blowholes

Whales clearly dominated the day, but I did add least sandpiper (122) to my bird year list.

Believe it or not, we weren't done yet. Still another full day of whale-watching, plus an amazing mangrove birding trip awaited us on day 3!


Vera said...

Super interesting blog once again with amazing photos. For some reason (I guess the artist in me), I LOVE the abstract water with the whale eye. I am anxiously anticipating the next chapter.

The K said...

Thanks for sharing your adventure. Great photos and writing.

In Arizona we used to call those little cacti "fish hook" cactus.