Thar they blow … again: gray whales make a grand Pacific comeback – includes related article

Thar they blow … again: gray whales make a grand Pacific comeback – includes related article – The West’s Great Fall Migrations

Matthew Jaffe

Somewhere back in the cardon cactus barrens, the desert road had jostled the optimism right out of the travelers. Skeptical and grumbling after a flat tire and driving just 30 miles in 3 hours, the group piled into several skiffs called pangas for the ride to a whale-watching base camp on an island in Laguna San Ignacio.

In a winter rite repeated over countless generations, gray whales have come to San Ignacio and other sheltered lagoons on Baja California’s Pacific coast, migrating up to 5,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to breed and bear their young in warmer Mexican waters.

A few minutes from shore, a mother whale and calf appeared. The pair swam straight for our panga; 10 feet from the boat, the mother slowed, surfaced, and blew. A few people recoiled at her approach, less out of fear than awe–the kind of awe you feel when you first find yourself sharing not just the earth but the same air with a 40-ton animal.

The calf swam along the panga, nuzzling the sides and turning to take a look at the turistas. Small bristles protruded from its head, a reminder of our common mammalian ancestry. The calf swam so close that passengers could stroke its baleen, the brushy plates in a gray’s mouth that the whale uses to strain its food from seawater or sediments.

With the afternoon fading and the travelers’ weariness now turned to amazement, the pangas headed toward the island. Even from camp, the whales dominated the day. After a nap, you opened your eyes to a dreamlike scene glimpsed through the tent flap: whales leaping out of the water, four or five jumps each minute, and spouting one after another.

Even within the last 20 years, such scenes truly would have been the stuff of dreams. But thanks to a variety of conservation efforts, gray whales have been restored to what most experts believe is their prewhaling population. Some observers estimate that by the mid-1940s only 8,000 to 10,000 gray whales existed. Since then, steady population growth has boosted their numbers to about 21,000.

This recovery could soon be recognized officially since the California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is expected to be taken off the federal Endangered Species List. The gray’s comeback also marks an environmental success story, but the tragic human role in the gray’s near-demise is a haunting reminder of our past environmental excesses.

A bloody legacy

That night at San Ignacio, the wind whipped through our tents, roaring and shaking even the exhausted from their sleep. The ghostly sound spurred thoughts of the multitudes of gray whales slaughtered in these waters.

Attitudes have changed greatly since whaling days, yet it is difficult for us to imagine that Baja’s lagoons once ran red with the whales’ blood. Nor could the whalers who plied these lagoons for what they called the devilfish ever have envisioned a time when vacationers would come here just to observe the grays.

Considering that grays spend their entire lives within easy reach of shore, they would have seemed most vulnerable to the whaling that began on the West Coast in 1795. But whalers often ignored the grays because of their lower-quality oil and baleen (once used for toothpicks and corset stays), concentrating instead on sperm whales and, in the Arctic, bowheads.

As whalers depleted stocks of these other whales, they turned their attention to the grays, hitting the species hard. In 1846, whalers began killing the stock in Baja’s Bahia Magdalena, while whaling stations popped up along the coast to process the whales taken by boats working the waters off Alta California.

At Bahia Magdalena, whalers sometimes harpooned calves to draw in mother whales who invariably rushed to their offspring’s defense. Once in range, the mothers, too, were struck by harpoons. Clean kills proved very rare, and in the ensuing mayhem, enraged and terrified whales thrashed the water, their flukes and fins often shattering the small whaling skiffs, crushing the men aboard. Moby Dick may have immortalized the sperm whale as the fiercest of cetaceans, but many whalers came to fear the grays even more.

One of the great figures in 19th-century West Coast whaling, Charles Melville Scammon provides a bridge between the days of wanton whaling and a more enlightened appreciation of these animals. Legend has it that he discovered the hidden lagoon that bears his name (Scammon’s Lagoon, or Laguna Ojo de Liebre) while chasing some grays through the surf. The truth is less romantic: guano collectors had tipped him off.

For three winters, Scammon worked the lagoons with their huge gray populations. “They collected at the most remote extremities of the lagoons and huddled so thickly together,” wrote Scammon, “that it was difficult for a boat to cross the waters without coming in contact with them.”

Scammon greatly reduced the risk to his crew by anchoring in waters so shallow that the whales could not attack and by using harpoons with explosive charges. Soon up to 25 other whaling ships were operating in the lagoons, and by 1874, Scammon estimated that they had taken 10,000 grays, although modern analyses put the take, both in the lagoons and along the coast, at a maximum of around 8,000.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because male grays tended to stay out of the lagoons, the vast majority of those killed were female, so a reproductive imbalance resulted. It took until the turn of the century before the species showed any increases.

At age 37, Scammon retired from whaling and began a career as a chartmaker and naturalist, providing insights into the grays’ behavior that remain an important resource for whale scientists today. In 1874, Scammon wrote, “… the large bays and lagoons, where the animals once congregated, brought forth and nurtured their young, are already nearly deserted. The mammoth bones of the California Gray Whale lie bleaching on the shores … and are scattered along the broken coasts, from Siberia to the Gulf of California.”

A coast-hugging whale

Evolutionary destiny and Manifest Destiny have combined to make the grays one of the great natural attractions in the world. On winter and spring days, fleets of commercial and private boats cruise the Pacific Coast to bear witness to the grays’ migration, the longest of any animal’s.

Grays have been going about their business for 30 million years; in contrast, other baleen species like the blue whale have evolved in the last 10 to 12 million years. While blues range through the open ocean, grays spend their lives within a few miles of the coast. Their affinity for the coast probably results from eating habits; they are primarily bottom-feeders, straining ocean-floor sediments for small crustaceans known as amphipods.

The grays now share the West Coast with about 38 million Americans, most of whom live within a 1- to 2-hour drive of the ocean; if they have ever seen any whale in the wild, it was most likely a gray.

Perhaps more than any whale species, grays are responsible for changing attitudes toward conservation. Our protective feelings toward whales seem so ingrained that it is difficult to remember a time when the public knew little about these animals, or ignored their commercial exploitation.

Yet it wasn’t until 1971 that the last whaling station in the United States closed, in Richmond, California, on San Francisco Bay. During the 1960s, this station took more than 300 migrating grays for research purposes, in what Steve Reilly, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, describes as “the old days of shoot-’em-up naturalism.”

As recently as 1991, Russian ships killed up to 175 grays annually under an International Whaling Commission provision that allows them to take whales for Russia’s Eskimos and other native peoples. These kills tend to come as a shock, especially because the grays have enjoyed international protection since 1946, after their numbers dwindled as factory ship whaling increased. Protection came much too late for the California grays’ cousins in the Atlantic, where they have been extinct since the mid-18th century, and for an Asian stock, which disappeared earlier this century.

While the grays may be removed from the Endangered Species List, they will still enjoy full safeguards under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, they remain vulnerable to such dangers as oil spills in their feeding grounds and along their migration routes, pollution from coastal runoff, and harassment from private boaters.

Not only are there lingering concerns about the grays’ future, but their recovery isn’t fully understood, either. Other whales have also received protection, but have never regained their historic numbers. Grays may simply be a more resilient species. “The grays seem to be generalists as far as whales go,” says Steven Swartz, a whale expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “They’re tenacious beasts and can put up with a lot.”

Remembered dangers

Protection is important, of course, but 30 million years of survival is no accident, and the grays have certainly shown an ability to take the initiative when they have to. Currently, the grays are moving a bit farther offshore from Southern California, probably to avoid boat traffic and coastal pollution. And their seeming disappearance from Baja’s lagoons in the whaling era, says Reilly, was a combination of population loss and a reaction to remembered dangers. “They could have figured out that if you go into those lagoons, you don’t come out again,” he speculates.

The grays also seem to have figured out that Baja’s lagoons are safe again. Since 1976, grays, especially at San Ignacio, have displayed the kind of gregarious behavior that our party of travelers observed for four days. Scientists theorize that the grays are curious, possibly want to use the boats to rid themselves of barnacles, or, being highly tactile animals, simply enjoy the contact. Yet in other lagoons, such outgoing behavior is either nonexistent or considerably more restrained.

Sometimes it’s better not to speculate. On our final day at San Ignacio, a father held his son as the boy reached out over the panga’s side to touch a calf who was resting on top of its mother’s back.

The boy and calf knew nothing about the violent history of men and whales. They have known only the sweet sensations of contact and trust. Watching the way the mother whale used her back to nudge the calf toward the boy’s outstretched hands, one could only be thankful for the human ability to rethink our ways and the whales’ apparent capacity to forgive our mistakes.

Gray whale–watchers guide to the West Coast

The migration of gray whales from the Arctic to Baja California connects millions of Westerners to cetacean rhythms.

In late fall, the whales, plump with added blubber after a summer in northern feeding grounds, begin heading down the Pacific Coast, usually swimming within a mile or two of shore. Grays stay farther offshore on their southern migration than they do on their northbound trek, because on this trip females swim in more sheltered waters with their calves.

The northbound migration actually occurs in two phases, with single adult whales leading the way and cow-calf pairs bringing up the rear. Studies show that the mother-calf pairs swim at a slower rate than males and lone females, and begin the journey at later dates.

Some general tips apply wherever you watch for whales

* For onshore watching, go for the high ground, preferably headlands or any promontories that put you a bit farther into or over the water.

* Morning is the best time for whale-watching. Afternoon glare cuts visibility, and increasing winds chop up the water, making it more difficult to spot spouts.

* Bring binoculars. But when you’re first scanning for whales, it’s better to look for spouts, then use binoculars to focus on a definite sighting.

* Dress warmly in layers (water-resistant windbreakers are ideal), especially if you’re going out on the water.

* Take precautions against motion sickness, particularly if you’re susceptible. Ask your doctor about over-the-counter remedies and prescription options.

* When picking a whale-watching trip, ask the operator if trained naturalists will be on board to answer questions. A good naturalist will make for a much richer day of observation.

* A great source for onshore whale-watching spots and general information is The Oceanic Society Field Guide to the Gray Whale (Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 1989; $4.95). It’s available through the society and at bookshops with good natural history sections. Another good publication, especially for Northern California, is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Gray Whales ($9.95), which includes natural history and whale-watching tips.

Whale cruise ports, festivals

Because of the large number of operators, especially in California, we list only primary sources for each region. Lists of whale-watch boats are usually available from local chambers of commerce or visitor bureaus. Some museums and aquariums offer several trips during the season.

British Columbia. In addition to migrating whales, the waters off Vancouver Island are home to a resident population of grays that remain in the area for the summer rather than returning to the Arctic.

Two small towns–Tofino and Ucluelet–serve as spring and summer whale-watch centers; they host the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, usually in mid- to late March. For festival information and lists of operators, call the Tofino Chamber of Commerce at (604) 725-3414 or the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce at 726-4641.

Washington. On the southern migration, the whale population peaks late November into mid-December, says Leo Shaw, marine education specialist with The Seattle Aquarium. But rough winter conditions mean that most operators prefer the spring peak, usually around the last two weeks in March. Whales continue migrating northward through these waters into May.

Westport is the state’s center for gray whale-watching operations. The Westport-Grayland Chamber of Commerce has lists of the 11 operators who work this coast; call (800) 345-6223. The Seattle Aquarium offers trips out of Westport every weekend from mid-March through April; call (206) 386-4329.

For an overall look at whales, including grays, visit the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands; call (206) 378-4710.

Oregon. Spring is the best time for whale-watching in Oregon because of flatter water, better visibility, and an estimated 30 whale sightings per hour, says Bev Lund, whale-watch volunteer coordinator at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The center, along with the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, conducts two whale-watch weeks using volunteer docents at about 28 sites up and down the coast. The first watch is scheduled from December 26 through January 2, from 10 to 1 daily. For dates of the spring whale-watch, a schedule of trips, and lists of whale-watching boats, call Lund at (503) 867-0246. Newport and Depoe Bay are two prime harbors for whale cruises.

Northern California. Peak periods become less distinct as the whales head south. The consensus is that late December through early April is probably the best period; according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the southbound migration peaks in early January and the northbound the first week in March.

Key whale-watching harbors are San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, and Monterey.

In recent years, many whales have also remained at the Farallon Islands until midsummer, says Mary Jane Schramm, public information manager of Oceanic Society Expeditions. The society offers 3- and 7-hour trips on weekends and some Fridays during the season; call (800) 326-7491.

Mendocino and nearby Fort Bragg hold a whale festival on two weekends during March: in Mendocino March 5 and 6, in Fort Bragg March 19 and 20; both locations offer whale-watching. Call (707) 961-6300.

Southern California. Considering Southern California’s notorious traffic, it’s not surprising that things get congested for the gray whales, too. Even as some grays, usually juveniles, are still completing their southbound journey, the first wave of returning whales passes them heading north.

For some of the juveniles, Southern California marks the end of their journey because they choose to hang around in bays or near the Channel Islands.

Southern California has the largest whale-watching fleet on the coast, with trips out of harbors from Morro Bay to San Diego. A good source for tour information is the American Cetacean Society; send a self-addressed stamped envelope to ACS, Box 2639, San Pedro, Calif. 90731.

Dana Point in Orange County annually celebrates the migration with the Dana Point Festival of Whales, a nine-day event in February and March featuring whale-watching excursions, a street fair, and art exhibits. Call (714) 496-1555.

Baja California. It costs more and takes more time, but there is nothing like a visit to one of the calving lagoons on Baja’s Pacific coast. Scammon’s Lagoon and Bahia Magdalena offer some accessible onshore spots, and grays can often be seen from hotel terraces at Cabo San Lucas. Grays normally arrive in the second week of January, reach peak numbers in the second week of February, and depart in mid-March.

To get on the water, consider going with a guided expedition. Prices range from $795 for 4-day trips to $2,995 for 12-day trips that cover other spots along the Pacific and in the Sea of Cortez. Trips fill up fast; call early if you want to go this season.

Baja Discovery: safari-style camp at Laguna San Ignacio; (800) 829-2252.

Baja Expeditions: camping, kayaking, and boat-based trips; (800) 843-6967.

Biological Journeys: boat-based and camping trips; (800) 548-7555.

Special Expeditions: 9- to 12-day trips aboard 70-passenger ships stop at Bahia Magdalena; (800) 527-6298.

In addition, many museums and environmental groups, including the American Cetacean Society and Oceanic Society Expeditions, also sponsor trips to Baja’s lagoons.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group