Each year, Gray Whales come to the magnificent Lagunas which are spread out along the spectacular west coast of the Baja California Sur Peninsula. Lagunas are nurseries, places where mothers can teach their young survival skills; reproduction areas where the whales can conserve energy as they prepare for the long journey back to the Arctic.
Tourists from all over the world come to the Baja Lagunas so they can take part in a miracle – touching fully grown Gray Whales and their calves. A truly mind-boggling experience, these Whales are so friendly. They come up to the small pangas (crafts) and roll over on their backs so people can scratch their great stomachs.
Sometimes, the whales will play for hours with visitors. It’s almost as awesome just watching the whales bring their young to the pangas and seeing the joy that people experience when human and whale meet.
But this year, the Lagunas were quieter. Numbers are way down. 2007 saw the lowest mid calf count in 30 years.
According to one leading American scientist who works in Mexico on the Gray Whales (but works for the US government so will remain nameless) 2008 saw smaller calves; whales spending more time underwater; less mating activity and few juveniles.
Whale watching companies at Laguna San Ignacio told the California Gray Whale Coalition that numbers in the key areas are well down. Guerrero Negro usually has around 2,000 whales. This year the count was around 600. San Ignacio Laguna has around 300, this year at the peak time the count was around 120.
The Mexican Government has been a leader in the protection of whales and Gray whales in particular. In 1946, Mexico ratified legislation prohibiting any killing of Gray Whales off its coast. Over the l970’s and 80’s, Mexico was one of the first countries in the world to set aside marine protected areas in the lagoons of Ojo de Liebre , Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio. These Lagunas form the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve which the UN declared a World Heritage Site in 1993. The Bahia Magdalena Laguna does not contain any protected areas although it holds the third largest concentration of Gray whales.
However, proposed tourist resorts, Liquified Natural Gas works and other developments threaten the sanctity of the Baja coastline.
Given the sheer extent of the migration route which encompasses Mexico, the US, Canada, Alaska and the Russian Federation, a strong case for protection of the entire migration route must be made. But the greatest stumbling block to that protection is the US government. In consistently refusing to relist the Gray Whales as threatened or endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, protection along the West Coast of the US is insignificant.
Whale watching captains in Monterey Bay tell pitiful stories of Gray whale mothers trying to protect their calves from packs of Orcas. Many whales travel close to the coastline so they can hide in the kelp and swim in shallow waters which Orcas tend to avoid. Others cut straight across the canyon where the waters are deeper. Some whale researchers believe younger whales and first time mothers may lack the knowledge and experience to take the safer route along the coastline.
Once a mother/calf Gray Whale pair are detected, Orcas group up and pursue them until the Grays are slowed down and surrounded by the Orca pod. Up to six hours may pass from the initial attack to the kill which includes ramming, biting, pulling on the pectoral fins and making attempts to separate mothers and calves. Mothers will often try to dash to safety with her calf, or roll on her belly with her calf on top as a respite from the brutal onslaught. Once the mother and calf are separated, the Orcas drown the calf. All that the Orcas take for food are the tongue and blubber from around the lower jaw. Sometimes they take all the blubber.
The California Gray Whale Coalition can find no evidence to suggest that the US Government takes into account the very high mortality rates caused by Orca predation. Omitting Orca caused mortality from the complex Potential Biological Removal (PBR) formula – a mathematical hypothesis which is set out under the provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, is cause for considerable alarm.
As with so many issues impacting the Gray Whale, Orca predation is in the too hard basket. But if the recent scientific research which suggests cascading extinctions caused by over-fishing, climate change and pollution is right, we can expect to see an increase in Orca predation caused by increasing starvation.
We know from Russian scientists that Orca predation on Gray Whales on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea is substantial. But the US government does not take these statistics into account.