August 6, 2019 • Trip Reports
While these two filter-feeding giants share some traits, they are not related – gray whales (top) are mammals and whale sharks are fish! © Slater Moore
Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and, to the east, the Sea of Cortez—one of the most productive and biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world. Baja’s waters provide unrivaled opportunities to experience two of the ocean’s giants, the gray whale and the whale shark. Dive in to learn about these amazing animals and how you can meet them!
The warm, calm lagoons on the Pacific Coast of the Baja California Peninsula are the annual destination for the Eastern Pacific population of the gray whale. Every year the whales undertake the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling 12,000 miles round-trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to calve and breed in the Baja lagoons, and then back again. That is about the same as traveling across the United States from San Francisco, California to Washington D.C., 3 times! The gray whales occupy Baja’s lagoons from December through early April, with moms and new calves being the last to depart for the journey north.
© Slater Moore
The whales are not the only ones making annual trips to the lagoons. Each year a thriving tourism industry sprouts up at the same time, supporting local communities that seasonally trade fishing for tourism while the whales are present. Baja’s gray whale tourism started in the 1970s after it was discovered that the gray whales would not only approach boats, but also interact with those on board. The whales appear to seek out contact; approaching and rubbing against boats and loitering at or just below the surface while accepting rubs and pats from obliging travelers. Some whales even open their mouth to allow people to rub along their baleen—long, fringed keratin plates that they use to filter food out of water and mud. This is the only place in the world that gray whales have shown these types of “friendly” behaviors, and it appears to be something that is passed down generationally by mothers who will allow their new calves to approach the boats.
© Amanda Townsel
This phenomenon is even more incredible considering the history of the gray whale in these same lagoons. In the late 19th century, whalers used the reliability of the gray whales’ migration and their concentration in the lagoons to harvest them nearly to extinction. It is estimated that the population was as low as 2,000 before international and national protections were enacted. On a federal level, Mexico has multiple protections for the gray whales, including designating protected areas and sanctuaries, as well as tourism-specific regulations that cover the number of visitors, boats, and both the way and the amount of time that visitors can interact with the whales. Locally, the tourism operators have formed collectives to ensure that the regulations are being enforced and that the whale tourism is sustainable, benefiting the communities while protecting the whales. Today, the Eastern Pacific population of the gray whale is thriving with around 26,000 individuals, and a Red List status of Least Concern.
Travelers pet a whale in San Ignacio Lagoon. © Jose Sanchez
You can see gray whales on their annual migration along the California coast on one of our whale watching trips, but if you want to meet them face to face, join us on ourBaja: San Ignacio Lagoon and Sea of Cortez expedition!
The eastern coastline of the Baja California Peninsula is bordered by the Sea of Cortez, once described as “the aquarium of the world” by marine explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau. This narrow sea hosts a dazzling array of marine life, including sea lions, dolphins, whales, invertebrates, sea birds, and nearly 1,000 species of fish, including the largest fish in the world, the whale shark.
A whale shark in the calm waters of La Paz, Baja. © Slater Moore
Whale sharks can be found in warm and tropical waters around the world. They are generally solitary but will gather in large numbers for mating and feeding when there are large concentrations of plankton, their primary food source. One of the areas that whale sharks gather to feed is in the productive waters of the Sea of Cortez, just offshore of the city of La Paz in Baja California—one of the best places in the world to see and swim with whale sharks.
© Pete Oxford
Whale sharks are cartilaginous fish, which means their skeleton is made of cartilage instead of bone. While the “whale” in their name is only in reference to their size, they do share some similarities with their mammalian neighbors. Like whales, whale sharks are huge, they can reach lengths up to 40 feet, as long as a school bus, and weigh around 40,000 pounds! Like baleen whales, whale sharks are also filter feeders, although their feeding technique is very different. When actively feeding, whale sharks suck in large amounts of water and then use filter pads on the sides of their mouth to separate water from their prey, which includes small fish, crustaceans, and microscopic organisms, collectively called plankton. And even though their mouths are about 5 feet wide, snorkelers definitely aren’t on the menu.
Whale sharks are often described as docile, though indifferent may be a better term. They do not appear to notice snorkelers and divers that keep a respectable distance, but may swim away if they feel threatened or harassed. Whale sharks are currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Their worldwide population is decreasing due to targeted commercial fisheries, bycatch, and boat/ship strikes. Tourism provides an alternative “use” for whale sharks, generating revenue locally in the areas they congregate. When whale shark tourism is well regulated, it can provide protection for them and allow them to live out their natural behaviors with minimal disturbance. Whale sharks are protected in Mexico, and the federal government has established regulations for tourism operators and visitors, including the number of boats, the number of visitors in the water, and the way they can interact with the whale sharks. These regulations are designed to protect the whale sharks, while allowing for tourism that supports local communities. In Baja, the regulations are strictly followed and enforced!
© Wayne Sentman
Are you ready to jump in and swim with the largest fish in the ocean? Join us on our Baja: Whale Sharks and Snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez Expedition!