Never mind that I live in land-locked Indiana. And I'm not that comfortable in water. (I do LOVE the beach...does that count?!)
But I've always been fascinated by sea creatures, and that fascination took us to Baja Mexico in search of gray whales.
Whale Nerd Alert: You may learn way more about gray whales than you really care to know, but I've got lots of tidbits of gray whale knowledge to share with you in this post...
During the whaling days gray whales were hunted almost to extinction, but they've made a remarkable comeback and are no longer on the endangered species list. They were easy prey for hunters as they seem to prefer staying fairly close to coastlines. Whalers could easily identify them, if the wind wasn't blowing, by their characteristic heart-shaped blow.
Gray whales make one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal on earth, traveling over 12,000 miles round-trip from their summer home in Alaska to the warmer Pacific waters near Mexico (where we went) in the winter to give birth and for breeding. Soon they will begin the long trek northward with their new calves alongside, a treacherous and dangerous journey for the babies as orcas (aka killer whales) lurk off the California coastline waiting for opportunities to attack the vulnerable young calves. And feast on the baby gray whales' tongues, apparently a delicacy to the picky orca palate, if you must know....
So we traveled to Magdalena Bay off the Pacific Baja coast, where pregnant gray whales like to give birth and nurture their young calves, to see the whales and their babes before they head north.
We saw our very first gray whale just after sunrise our first morning in Mag Bay. Enjoying our coffee and soaking up the scenery, our first sighting happened just off the bow of the Sea Bird.
She even showed us her tail, which we found out was rather unusual behavior for these whales. At this time of year, they rarely breach or fluke like we see in photos of their larger whale cousin humpbacks, and in the four days of whale-watching this was the only real fluking behavior we witnessed. So I was very fortunate to get this shot!
The whale's misty blow created a rainbow in the early morning light. What a great way to begin a whale-watching day!
We donned our life vests for each of our 4 whale-watching outings.
Most of the time, we left the big boat in small groups to cruise in zodiaks. With 56 passengers on board, we had to split up into two shifts...one would go whale-watching and the other spent time at the nearby beach. After a couple of hours, we'd switch.
We were all so excited when we began seeing lots of blows! But I have to tell you, although we saw lots of whales I didn't get very good photos on that first outing.
I was too busy hanging on that zodiak for dear life, as the swells were huge! It was a very bumpy, wet, and chilly ride.
Plus all the whale action seemed to be on the other side of the boat...and it was too rough for this girl to stand up.
It's hard to see in this photo (I've got better ones to come), but the larger whale with the white spots is the momma gray and her baby is darker and in front of her.
I know everyone's hoping for those great photos, but this gopro-on-a-stick was very frustrating to me and ended up in most of my first days shots. I hope SHE got a great image of that baby gray whale surfacing...I sure didn't...
We were very thankful we brought our warm clothes and waterproof coats as it was quite chilly out there. I hate to say it was "cold" while my friends and family back in Indiana were enduring temperatures in the 20s, but it wasn't the classic sunny warm Mexico weather that I think of. With temperatures in the high 60s, partly cloudy with plenty of wind, and being out on the water it was quite cool. Thankfully I followed the packing list they gave us and we were prepared.
The next morning was MUCH CALMER and a nicer day. And I told Kim we were sitting on the other side of the zodiak this time....
We enjoyed having the Nat Hab founder/president Ben Bressler in the zodiak with us. Just a nice guy, just one of the group...
Now that's what I'm talking about! That is the back of an adult gray whale (presumably female since we were cruising in their maternity waters).
Gray whales are born gray (duh....), but soon acquire barnacles (the white areas) and "lice" (which are not lice at all but rather tiny crab-like critters) which attach to the skin of the whales and give them the splotching coloring.
This is the back of a baby whale that surfaced right next to our zodiak. You can see the barnacles that are beginning to attach to its skin already.
Someone commented that we are all going to have lots of photos of whale backs...and she was right. These gray whales were tired mommas trying to care for their babies and they weren't too friskily jumping around in the water. Add in the fact that they haven't eaten anything since they left Alaska months ago plus they are nursing a 3000 lb. baby who is drinking up to 80 gallons of milk every day! No wonder they are weary....
Their backs are ridged making them look like a sea serpent. Not that I've seen that many sea serpents, but somehow I know what they're supposed to look like...
Once in awhile we were fortunate to see some spy-hopping behavior. Scientists don't know exactly why whales do this as many times their eyes don't even come out of the water and they are believed to have poor eyesight anyway, but maybe they just want to feel some fresh breezes across their rostrums!
Momma and baby...
You can see how close we all got to the whales! Hard to take a photo of such a large animal when it's so close to you.
You can see the 2 blowholes on top of this baby's head. Gray whales are baleen whales that eat crustaceans found in the sand on the bottom of the ocean. All baleen whales have 2 blowholes while the toothed whales (like orcas) only have one. Just in case someone ever asks you, now you know!
Baby whale with the lice on its rostrum...
When they would roll over, we'd get a quick glimpse of their fins...
See the edge of the zodiak in the bottom right corner? That's how close they came! The babies were quite curious about the boats and the mothers allowed them to get very close to us.
Baby is looking us over alongside the back of its momma...this was one of my favorite whale shots.
When we say "baby," it's a BIG baby, longer than our zodiak!
Up close and personal!
Momma and baby both rolling over....
Watching and waiting...we know you're down there....
Besides my regular camera, I also took an underwater camera hoping to get some great underwater shots. But I found it really difficult to get the camera very far into the water as I had to lean way over and shoot blindly in the direction of the whales. I got a lot of nothing photos of waters and bubbles,...
...but I did get this one. Okay, it's not National Geographic material, but it is an underwater photo of a gray whale.
That's the baby's blowhole you see...its eye is halfway underwater.
They have a prehistoric look to them, dinosaur heads. Not that I've actually seen a lot of dinosaurs, but somehow I know what they look like. :)
The adult pectoral fins are evidence of survival, covered with scars from perilous life in the ocean.
Baby and momma gray whales, side by side...
You can see his baleen (instead of teeth) in his mouth, used as strainers to separate the sand and water from the yummy critters at mealtime. This baby is still nursing and won't begin feeding until he reaches Alaska this summer.
Calm waters, beautiful peaceful day communing with God's creatures. I was in awe!
Our last day of whale-watching was a little different. The Sea Bird cruised out of the protected lagoons where the mommas and babies primarily stayed and into a bigger section of Mag Bay. Since there is a ban on fishing in Mag Bay while the whales are there, the local fisherman make their money by taking folks whale-watching in their little panga boats. What a great gesture of good will with the local community that Nat Hab contracts with local pangeros to take us whale-watching our final time!
An absolutely spectacular day of weather! Our best yet! The color of the water was remarkable, and due to the much deeper waters very clear (the huge whales keep the shallower lagoon water always stirred up).
These are adults, either breeding or just hanging out until it's time to head north.
With the water so clear, we could see them underwater. I didn't take my underwater camera, as I knew the panga sides would be way too steep to bend over into the water with my camera. And I didn't fancy swimming with the whales....
Another of my favorite images....I love everything about this shot.
We went to Baja to see whales and we were not disappointed! I'd say we saw around 50 whales altogether, and it was such a magical experience to be in the presence of such huge mysterious creatures. There's still so much to learn about God's creation.
That she blows!