March 11, 1996
Imagine being pregnant and swimming 6,000 miles through frigid ocean waters over several months time in order to give birth. Then imagine returning the same distance with a newborn baby. Sounds like a tragic historical film starring Meryl Streep? Nope. It’s reality, starring the North American gray whales.
Every year, an estimated 15-22,000 gray whales travel 12,000 miles roundtrip from the Bering Sea off Alaska to the warm waters off Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula where they give birth. Swimming in pods of two to 10, the pregnant females lead the pack, making haste to arrive at the shallow lagoons where they birth their calves. Less urgently, courting males and females follow, with curious juveniles bringing up the rear. The journey takes a total of seven months between December and June, the longest known mammalian migration. Traveling southward down the West Coast, gray whales stick close to the shore where they filter their food from the shallow ocean floor. Their proximity to land makes for easy observation. Gray whales are observed off the coast of California mid-December through mid-May.
On a gray, wet January afternoon I bought a $14 ticket from Chris’ Fishing Trips for a whale watching cruise off the coast of Monterey, Calif. “We Guarantee Whales On All Of Our Whale Watching Cruises” declared Chris’ brochure. Leaving from Fisherman’s Wharf, I joined a group of German tourists, some local marine-science students and a couple from Ohio on a fishing boat for a two-hour excursion in Monterey Bay. Our informative captain cheerfully schooled us in gray whale facts and figures over a loudspeaker as we cruised into the bay. The boat did not contain any sonar equipment. “We locate whales the old-fashioned way,” said the captain, “by sight.” Captain, crew and passengers alike participated in sighting whales by spotting “blows,” the spray of water that the whales expel from their blow-holes when breathing.
Thirty minutes into the trip, all we had seen was a blow from an invisible whale about 150 feet from the boat. Discouraged, I figured Chris had fulfilled his guarantee and no more whales were to be seen that day. After a few minutes, I heard the captain instruct the passengers to look left of the boat. About 50 feet away, I saw a column of white water spurt high into the air. Seconds later, a huge mass of gray, shiny, barnacle-laden flesh rose above the ocean surface. Then, in one spectacular, fluid movement, the mighty mammal dipped back underwater and flipped its massive tail toward the sky, sending shock waves through the water. I caught myself yelling with excitement. I was taken aback by the spectacular beauty of the ocean beast.
For the next hour and a half, we pursued pod after pod of gray whales. Shy and elusive, the determined whales avoided us. However, skillfully maneuvering the boat, but careful not to cut off their southward path, the captain managed to get close to them. We got within 20 feet of one pod. When a whale was spotted, the observer would yell and point as the rest of the passengers scurried to the appropriate end of the boat. Straining and waiting for the split-second window of opportunity, some attempted to take photographs. All aboard Chris’ fishing boat saw about a dozen whales rise to the ocean surface for a breath, and many, like our first whale, flipped their huge tails as they re-submerged to feed along the ocean floor. I hung over the railing to get the closest look possible. As the mist softly fell and the chill filled my bones, I felt like an adventurer on a mysterious expedition.
Some claim that observation boats disturb the whales, bombarding them with fossil fuel and noise pollution, and disrupting their southward journey. I saw no evidence to support that claim. Although some operations may be less responsible, the captain of Chris’ boat was sensitive to the whales, staying out of their way and cutting off the boat engine when near a pod, for their benefit as well as the watchers’. What whale watching accomplishes in promoting awareness and education may greatly outweigh any rare and minor disruptions.
Although taken off the endangered species list last year, gray whales still face survival hardships such as oil spills and destruction of birthing lagoons in Mexico. Once heavily hunted, the gray whale population dwindled to 2,400 at the beginning of this century and was on the verge of extinction. Saved by a series of international agreements that the Mexican government aggressively enforced, 23,000 gray whales swim the ocean today.
He got much closer than I did, but Jacques Cousteau eloquently described observing gray whales in his book “The Whale: The Mighty Monarch of the Sea,” (Jacques-Yves Cousteau, 1972, Doubleday & Co.).
“The whale’s physical presence is overwhelming, overpowering. From time to time, one hears its breathing, and is perhaps sprinkled by its spout. At that moment, man realizes that he is approaching a life form beyond the scale of human reckoning; a mysterious presence, embodied in an incredible black cylinder … Seen in life, it is a vastly impressive spectacle; and also a somewhat frightening one.”