Breaking waves: The story of the grey whales

The bizarre mating rituals of the grey whale are drawing growing numbers of wildlife enthusiasts to Baja California.



    Silence reigns over San Ignacio lagoon in North Mexico. The only sound is the hum of an idling motor in the launch that has brought the half-dozen tourists to the centre of the lake. They grip the side of the boat, straining to see movement in the depths below or squint off into the middle distance with cameras held in eager hands. It is a tense, expectant still, broken only by the occasional excited squawk of a false alarm.

    Suddenly a huge flipper rises into the air, flails around and slips back into the icy waters of the lagoon. Seconds later another appears, before the water is alive with a windmill of giant flailing extremities. As the tourists coo and point, three huge bodies briefly rise to the surface before disappearing from view as the complex gyrations continue.

    This is the mating of the grey whale, taking place in the most public of bedrooms. They travel up to 10,000km each year to enact the ritual, beginning the long swim in the icy waters of the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas between Russia and Alaska before heading here, to the balmier water of the Northern Mexico Bajan California peninsula. It is the longest migration of any mammal in the world.

    A tricky proposition

    An adult whale is between 10-11 metres long and weighs 35 tons, a size that can make mating a tricky proposition. The act is necessarily a ménage a trois, in which two male whales stabilise the body of the female between them. All three of them float belly up and, whilst one of the males mates with the female, the other acts as a stabiliser. Although many males may mate with a female, the ultimate father of her calf will be the one who has left the largest amount of sperm the deepest within her.

    Grey whale expert Dr Jorge Urban has spent his life watching the giant mammals. He says that this year there are four times the normal number of whales in the lagoon. He puts the increase down to them eating particularly well in the northern feeding grounds and this year''s particularly cold seas.

    In the four months between the end of the year and April, the lagoon is a hive of breeding, birthing and suckling. Mothers and their calves emerge from the water side by side, whilst other whales jump and play in the water.

    The Devil Fish

    The old whale hunters had a special respect for the grey whale, which fought them so ferociously that it was given the name "Devil Fish". Its struggles could not prevent it from nearing the brink of extinction. A ban on hunting and a vigorous effort to protect them has helped numbers up to around 25,000 worldwide.

    Mexico has played a special part of this, providing the first whale sanctuaries in the world, says Dr Lorenzo Rojas, Mexico's representative on the World Whale Commission. Each year marine biologists and whale watchers descend upon the Baja California peninsula.

    The tourists wear an almost uniform expression of enthusiastic incredulity. They come from all over the globe for a glimpse of the whales. Ciuliana Zoboli and her family are on vacation from Italy. Still in her life jacket, she enthuses about these almost prehistoric looking creatures.

    "It's a magnificent thing because we're making contact with the natural world, with the sea. You can hear the sounds of the whales breathing and that immerses you in nature."

    The whales in turn seem to appreciate the attention. Playing around the tourist boats they often pop up alongside for tourists to run their hands over their warm, rubbery skin. The "Devil Fish" persona has been replaced by a curiosity for humans that may be due to the fact that the whale hugs the coastline closely in its migration, seeing oil rigs, pleasure boats and shipping along the way.

    From being the scourge of whale hunters, the grey whale is now commonly acknowledged by experts as the friendliest whale to humans in the sea.

    The legend of Pachico

    This friendly reputation did not stop fisherman in San Ignacio viewing them with suspicion for years, fearing these huge, almost prehistoric-looking beasts. The first fisherman to overcome his trepidation and touch a whale, Pachico Mayoral, has grown into a legendary figure around the lagoon.

    Since his daring feat the fishermen have realised the benefits the whales offer them, taking tourists out to see the whales and establishing camps around the side of the lagoon to put them up. Mayoral himself established one of the first of them, which is still going strong today.

    But the benefits that tourism has brought has been mixed with a strong spirit of conservation. As fisherman Alejandro Gallegos says: "If we don''t take care of the whales our families won't have food on the table. We have to take care of them so that our descendants can live and work the same way."

    Only a certain number of boats are allowed out on the lake at any given time as the community seeks to limit human interference in the lives of the giant mammals. Whale-watching camps are purposefully as basic as possible in an attempt to merge rather than superimpose on nature.

    The lost population

    Around 130 grey whales never make the journey to Mexico's lagoons. This small group of West Pacific Grey Whales remains a mystery even to their most fervent scientific admirers. They feed in the seas off Sakhalin in Eastern Russia, but from there, the group's migration route is a mystery.

    No one knows where their breeding grounds lie, although they are thought to be somewhere between the coasts of Korea and China. The groups numbers are so low that scientists worry that they may not be around for too much longer.

    For the 25,000 grey whales that head to Baja California, the future looks brighter. The sun begins to set on lagoon San Ignacio. The last whale-watching boat has come in and the silence is punctuated only by the soft explosion of spray as huge barnacled backs rise to the surface then sink back down.

    Luxuriating beneath the tranquil waters of the lagoon, these huge beasts contemplate another long journey north.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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