Whale Watching in the
Sea of Cortez
and Bahia Magdalena
Blue whales and friendly grays
February 2004

Photo Gallery

Narrative Trip Report

Day 1, Search for the Elusive Blue
Day 2, Drenched by a Blue Whale
Day 3, Harassment and Sanctuary
Day 4, Eye Contact

My friend the gray whale calf

3. Harassment and Sanctuary

Wednesday, Magdalena Bay: In February of 2001, my parents graciously invited me to join them on an expedition to visit the friendly grays of Laguna San Ignacio (read my trip report from this excursion).  To make a long story short, three full days on the water yielded much exciting mating activity but no more than 10 minutes of friendly time and no touching whatsoever.  Larry and I decided to try our luck this winter, and joined two other couples on the day-long excursion to Magdalena Bay.  The grays winter on the opposite side of the peninsula, requiring a two and a half hour drive through the mountains and across the desert to reach its shores.  It was pleasant enough, as far as extended cab rides go, the mountains beautiful like those around Tucson, Arizona and the plains beyond populated by Saguaro cactus. Nearer the ocean, osprey nests dotted the power lines.  Vultures were ever-present, stretching their wings in groups of 20 or more on top of every available cactus in an area.  I wondered how many carcasses could possibly be around to feed such a multitude of scavengers.

At last we arrived at the edge of the bay and drove through the impoverished town to our panga.  On the outskirts, we passed an absurd billboard advertising Pacifico beer.  It said, "A ver ballenas, tome Pacifico!"  Drink Pacifico to see whales?  Many of the signs and paintings for miles around the bay prominently sported images of whales, but this seemed especially ludicrous.  Really, what does beer drinking have to do with watching whales!?

When we arrived at the water's edge, the six of us climbed in and headed out into the Bay.  In the first half hour we stopped and watched three mother whales steadfastly avoid us.  Moving a little farther into the bay, another whale appeared who seemed mildly interested in the boat, floating beneath us and blowing bubbles.  Our hopes mounted, but he too disappeared.  However, as we idled through the area, our captain spotted the whale's flukes motionless beneath the surface.  What followed was the worst whale harassment that I've been party to.  As soon as we came near, the whale beat its great flukes and moved away, the powerful stroke clearly visible beneath the water.  We followed on his tail, awed by the magnificence of his flukes pumping just beneath the surface--I've never seen whales really swim with their flukes, let alone swimming as hard as this one was.  It soon became clear to me that the whale was fleeing us but, great and powerful tail or not, he was no match for our outboard.  The whale would made periodic ninety degree turns in an effort to shake us, but we turned with it, always watching those flukes beating him away from us; as the pursuit lingered on I became increasing uneasy and finally upset, casting pleading looks at the captain and Larry in an effort to end the harassment.  I am ashamed at how long I let it go on, but I felt stymied by the enjoyment exhibited by most of the other passengers and my lack of Spanish skills.  Eventually, the whale, who had not breathed since before we found his motionless flukes, came up for a hurried breath in front of us and descended again; a few moments later, it was forced to breath again and Larry finally stepped up and asked the captain in Spanish to give the whale a break.  It was awful, and I figured the bad whale karma accrued in those minutes of pursuit made my chances for a friendly encounter that day nil.  In essence, we mimicked the first whalers who entered the bay, chasing the whale until it was out of breath and forcing it to come to the surface (where they could easily harpoon it).  I suspect that the whale wasn't interested in us in the first place, (perhaps the bubbles he/she blew were an aggressive or territorial display).  When that didn't move us, I think he hid and held his breath, but the water there was shallow and his flukes were revealed through the surface.  Then we chased him until he could stay down no longer, our ability to keep on his tail a function of his inability to dive in the shallow water.  This is the kind of activity that can hurt both the whales and the whale watching industry.  Was there any chance that this whale would ever be friendly to boats--and would it pass that feeling on to others?  What if it was a male exhausted from mating or a female about to give birth?  Sick to my stomach, we sped off toward the mouth of the bay and more whales.

Though we saw nothing on the way, the mouth of the bay was alive with dozens of whales alone or in small groups.  Everywhere we looked whales were showing their pectoral fins, fluking and breathing.  There was one breach and some spy hops.  The best encounter here was with one member of a threesome which we spent some time approaching from a distance before one of them broke away from the others and appeared under our boat.  We could see her shape as a white blob beneath the water, but she seemed reluctant to surface nearby and certainly wasn't interested in our desire to touch her.  She'd stay for a few minutes, then disappear again and the threesome would come up together some distance away.  After an hour or so, she finally began charging toward the boat on her own, the only time all day that we saw a whale's face coming toward us rather than seeing the end of the animal heading away.  The last time she came to us, she stayed for some time and her companions wandered off; we were alone with a whale hovering just a few feet beneath us.  Every once in a while, her flukes would approach the surface and we'd see her twisting and pirouetting with her head deep out of site below.  Then she'd straighten out and hover but a few feet beneath the boat, or let the tip of her tail just break the surface nearby.  We were thrilled with the experience, despite her apparent lack of interest in the occupants of the boat.  Once I saw a large white shape rising determinably toward the surface and I was sure that at last she was going to show her face; it turned out to be bubble--she too had exhaled beneath the surface.  A few minutes later, she moved off the stern of the panga and, ever so slowly, rose to the surface for a breath about ten feet away.  She took another breath and then dipped beneath the surface again, coming within a few feet of our hands dunked into the water.  The longer she stayed with us, the closer she came and it seemed that her trust was building.  Unfortunately, we had to leave her just then, but it had been a lovely afternoon despite our first encounter.  I suspect that she was using us to shake her suitors.  Gray whales always mate in groups of at least three--two males and one female.  At San Ignacio Lagoon, our guide suggested that females often approach boats because the mating males usually don't.  This certainly seemed the case; our female actively approached the boat while the other two held back, but she didn't seem particularly interested in us.  Not a "friendly" whale, just a smart one.

Day 4, Eye Contact

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