1. There Are Three Lagoons That the Gray Whales Migrate to in Baja
Laguna Ojo de Liebre in Guerrero Negro, Laguna San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena. The whales come to these warm waters every January through April where the shallow bays are ideal for breeding, birthing, and nursing their young calves. UNESCO named Laguna San Ignacio and Laguna Ojo de Liebre World Heritage Sites.
2. Laguna Ojo de Liebre Used to be Called Scammon’s Lagoon
Laguna Ojo de Liebre lagoon in Guerrero Negro was once commonly called Scammon’s Lagoon. But Charles Melville Scammon was a whaler who nearly decimated the Eastern Pacific gray whale population. Scammon first encountered the Laguna Ojo de Liebre in 1857 and hunted the gray whales for oil. Over the next 18 years, whalers nearly extinguished the gray whale population in the region, but luckily the whales were able to rebound. The lagoon was renamed Laguna Ojo de Liebre meaning eye of the hare.
3. The Gray Whales Have the Longest Migration of Any Mammal on Earth
Every October, the gray whales of the Eastern Pacific begin a two-to-three-month migration traveling in pods from the cold Alaskan seas to the warm waters of Baja California. At nearly 14,000 miles round-trip, it is the longest annual migration of any mammal. They can swim at speeds up to 33 mph and are believed to be able to dive down 395 feet.
4. There Were Once Gray Whales in the Atlantic Ocean
Gray whales were once found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Sub-fossil remains have been found on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from New Jersey to Florida. And there are historical accounts of gray whales from Iceland in the early 1600s. These Atlantic populations of whales were decimated as commercial whaling began in the 17th century.
5. There are Two Populations of Gray Whales in the Pacific Ocean
Today, the only gray whales are found in the Pacific Ocean with two populations, the Eastern Pacific gray whales and the Western Pacific gray whales. The Eastern Pacific gray whales spend their summers up in the shallow waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and the northwestern Bering Sea. Every autumn they begin their migration down to the warm waters of Baja California Sur.
The Western Pacific gray whale once lived plentifully along the coasts of Korea, China, Japan and Russia. But they were heavily hunted and by 1970 they were thought to be completely extinct until a few were found off the coast of Russia. Today there are only about 100 of the Western Pacific gray whales left, making them one of the most critically endangered whales in the world.
6. These Gentle Giants Are Known for Their Friendly Behavior
Gray whale watching in Baja is not your typical whale watching experience. Whale watchers are taken out in smalls groups of 6-8 people on pangas (small fishing boats) and are able to get up-close and personal with the whales who can weigh up to 40 tons and measure nearly 50 feet long. In addition to putting on a show for humans by spy hopping, breaching and spouting, the gray whales of Baja actually seek out human contact and will come right up to the whale watching boats so that people can pet and touch them. Many of the interactions with humans are between mothers and their young calves. Often mother whales will push their young calves right up to the boats so that people can pet, hug and kiss the baby whales. It’s a uniquely thrilling and unforgettable experience.
7. They are Unique Eaters
The gray whales are baleen whales with approximately 300 baleen plates made of keratin. They are unique among other large whales in that they are bottom feeders, swimming along the bottom of shallow waters and swallowing large amounts of silt. They strain out the water and mud and swallow the bottom-dwelling invertebrates.
8. Gray Whales Prefer Shallow Waters
The gray whales are the most coastal of all the large whales, spending most of their time within 20 miles from the coastline. They spend their winters and summers eating and birthing in shallow bays, and even stay near the coast when they migrate. Because of this, you can often spot them just off the west coast of North America during their annual migration. This also made them easy targets in the past for whalers.
9. They Only Have Two Predators
The only predators of the gray whales are orca and humans. Although gray whales have been protected from commercial whaling for over 70 years now, they were commonly hunted by humans for their blubber which produced oil used for lamps. There were only estimated to be about 2,000 whales remaining in the early 1900s. They got the nickname “devil fish” because of their aggressive behavior when harpooned. Luckily, the population of Eastern Pacific gray whales was able to rebound from being nearly hunted to extinction. Gray whales have a natural lifespan of 50-70 years.
10. They are Protected by International Law
Gray whales are protected by international law and whale watching in Baja is highly regulated. The numbers of the Eastern Pacific gray whales have grown to over 20,000 and they were removed from the United Stated endangered species list in 1994.
For more information about visiting the gray whales in Baja, please see our Baja Gray Whale Guide.