A Gray Whale Migration Story

Perhaps 100 yards off our bow, a massive gray mound rises to the surface. Francisco Mayoral, the wizened captain of our small motorized panga, cuts back on the throttle and begins a gradual approach. A fan-shaped geyser of seawater erupts ahead and subsides with a whoosh. As the whale dives, arching its heart-shaped flukes, a sparkling waterfall beckons us forward.

Francisco leans over the side and starts rapping his knuckles in a rhythmic pattern against the boat’s metal hull. Known as the guardian of San Ignacio Lagoon, at 65 he has been “calling” the Eastern Pacific gray whales for more than a quarter century. He’d been fishing alone when a group surrounded his skiff and, overcoming his fear, Francisco finally reached out a hand. “It was like breaking through some kind of invisible wall,” he recalled, as he became the first human being known to have touched a whale.

That moment marked the beginning of what’s become known as “the friendly gray whale phenomenon” – approaches made to boatloads of visitors at three remote birthing lagoons along Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. Here, a little over a century ago, the grays’ ancestors fell victim by the thousands to whalers’ harpoons. Here, less than a decade ago, pressure from environmental groups staved off another threat – what would have been the world’s largest industrial salt factory.

This is the southern end of the grays’ migration, a 12,000-mile round-trip journey that is among the longest made by any mammal. With the new millennium, it has also become increasingly perilous. In early March, near the mouth of the lagoon, mothers can be seen putting their young calves through “spring training” – treading water against the strong incoming currents, gathering strength as though on a treadmill. Traveling in pairs, sometimes in larger groups, they will soon head north – navigating past long-familiar landmarks and staying in proximity to the most heavily industrialized coastline in the world.

Hazards appear early. Shipping lanes for cargo vessels and supertankers parallel the whales’ path, their propellers emitting a pervasive hiss that penetrates the water, at a minimum disrupting the marine mammals’ communication and capable of causing hearing loss. Even more hazardous is the U.S. Navy’s deployment of acoustic sonar systems. Designed to detect enemy submarines, the practice blasts intense sound waves across vast swaths of ocean and has been responsible for whale strandings in many sectors of the globe. In November 2008, the Supreme Court rejected environmentalists’ arguments and lifted restrictions on Navy sonar use during training exercises off the Southern California coast.

At Monterey Bay, a Grand Canyon-scale underwater abyss offers an enticing shortcut to the migrating whales. However, the wiser mother-calf pairs instead hug the kelp forests that ring the bay. For across the deep cobalt canyon, orcas lie in wait. Along with the occasional great white shark, these killer whales are the grays’ only natural predator. They often attack from underneath, ambush-style, and whale watch cruises have remarkable tales of a mother positioning the newborn on her stomach, between the flippers and just out of reach, until after many hours the orca pod gives up.

The gray whales travel on, covering as many as 80 miles in a day, sometimes getting entangled in fishermen’s nets as they pass Oregon and Washington.

The sparsely inhabited temperate rain forest along Vancouver Island is a respite from the gauntlet. Here, and increasingly at other places along the route, they have been observed pausing to feed and sometimes to remain. Rarely did the grays so pause until recent years. But in their Arctic summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, something has gone awry.

Since the 1990s, sea ice in the Arctic has been steadily diminishing due to global warming. The most visible impacts are to polar bears, walruses and reindeer, but gray whales are clearly suffering as well. Their time-honored source of food, tiny crustaceans called amphipods that once carpeted the seafloor, now lack cold, nutrient-rich waters in which to thrive. As the amphipod population declines, gray whales are forced to forage further north, seeking other sources of food and depleting their energy reserves.

Francisco Mayoral has observed fewer whales, arriving later at the lagoons and spending less time there before making the long journey north again. Many show signs of malnutrition. Ironically, this comes at a time when environmental groups have successfully protected much of the lagoon from any future development, through partnerships with local landowners.

Now, a mother-calf pair surges toward our panga. Weighing over 30 tons, 10 times the size of a large elephant, the mother dwarfs our boat, and the calf is already about one-third her size. Either whale could overturn us with a mere flick of the tail. Yet I feel no trace of fear.

The mother, using her body as a natural breakwater, seems to be coaxing the young one toward us. Slowly, it makes the rounds of outstretched hands, surprisingly soft to the touch. Amazingly, the whales enjoy the rubbing of the long, bristly baleen plates they use to ingest their food. The mother turns on her side and gazes upward, her baseball-sized eye appearing moonstone-blue, like that of some unfathomably old, unjudging god. The look penetrates to the very depth of my being.

What might these majestic creatures who have chosen to befriend humans be trying to impart to us? Can we survive global warming? Noise pollution? The wanton carelessness about our habitats? Can we pretend to endure what the whales cannot?

Above the leathery red mangroves, pelicans soar like a flying string quartet. Francisco Mayoral turns wordlessly and aims his finely tuned engine toward shore again. In the near distance, a sudden surge indents the water, leaving behind a heart-shaped mist – and the lingering image of the eye of a whale.