SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
March 28, 1977
The cobalt blue waters of Baja's Magdalena Bay are where the gray whales winter—big, barnacled mamas and their newborn 15-foot, half-ton offspring
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March 28, 1977

Where The Whales Put On A Whale Of A Show

The cobalt blue waters of Baja's Magdalena Bay are where the gray whales winter—big, barnacled mamas and their newborn 15-foot, half-ton offspring

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In the winter of 1856, we were whaling about...Magdalena Bay, where, in attacking sixteen whales, two boats were entirely destroyed, while the others were staved fifteen times; and out of eighteen men who officered and manned them, six were badly jarred, one had both legs broken, another three ribs fractured, and still another was so much injured internally that he was unable to perform duty during the rest of the voyage. All these serious casualties happened before a single whale was captured.... And one of Captain L.'s felicitous amusements was in dilating upon the terrors of 'devil-fishing'.... 'We was chasing a cow and calf, and I charged my boat-steerer to be careful and not touch the young sucker, for if he did, the old whale would knock us into chopsticks; but no sooner said than done—slam went two irons into the critter, chock to the hitches, and that calf was "pow-mucky" in less than no time; and the boat-steerer sung out: "Cap'n, I've killed the calf, and the old cow is after us." Well, just about this time, I sung out to the men to pull for the shore as they loved their lives; and when that boat struck the beach, we scattered. I'll admit I never stopped to look round; but the boat-steerer yelled out: "Cap'n, the old whale is after us still," when I told all hands to climb trees!' "

Thus, more than a century ago, Charles Melville Scammon, whaling skipper par excellence, described the pursuit of the California gray whale in his definitive non-fiction work of the 19th century, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Together with an Account of the American Whale-Fishery. For the thousands of whale enthusiasts who have begun to swarm into Baja California during the winter months, with eyes and cameras cocked for a closeup look at the California gray, Scammon's little scare story ought to be required reading.

This winter, in an estuary of Magdalena Bay, a 22-foot outboard containing a party of whale watchers approached a cow and calf. The waters of Mag Bay and environs are never what you might call gin clear, but rather a murky blue, so that when a whale sounds it is impossible to tell where it will reemerge. Suddenly the calf surfaced within six feet of the boat. A girl, caught up in some inner replay of Songs of the Humpback Whale and feeling in tune with whale-dom, leaped overboard—between the calf and the cow.

"It was touch and go," recalls Tim Means, a Baja-wise veteran of the whaling lagoons. "The cow, by rights, should have smashed that young lady into human sashimi and our boat into chopsticks. The flukes on her tail were a good 10 feet across. But the old lady was kind to us that day. She simply herded the calf away from any imagined danger and flirted her skirts at us. As it was, the whirlpool she whipped up with her fast turn darn near swamped the boat."

Means, 32, is the head of Baja Expeditions, Inc., a San Diego-based outfit that organizes natural-history excursions through the peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. The six-day whale-watching trips are new on his agenda. For $495 per person, the groups of 15 are bused from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico, then flown to La Paz. From there they are taken across the peninsula to the fishing village of Puerto Lopez Mateos and ensconced in a tented camp on a reach of sand dunes across the estuary from the port. Meals are taken aboard a 54-foot Mexican sardine boat, the Alejandro, and the chow—prepared by a maestro of tortillas and beans named Chaparrito—is excellent. The camp is run by another old Baja hand, Mac Shroyer, and his wife Mary, who hails from Hawaii and does everything barefoot.

Magdalena Bay is a harshly beautiful world of sand, sun, wind and water. The main bay measures 80 square miles in area, but with attendant estuaries it extends fully 150 miles along the sparsely populated Pacific coast of Baja. Some 600 miles south of the border, Magdalena is the southernmost of the three Baja lagoons to which the California grays migrate each winter for courting and calving. Scammon Lagoon, near the town of Guerrero Negro in the midriff region of Baja, is the northernmost, and since the paved "Frijole Freeway" came through four years ago, the most accessible. But government permits are required to put a motorboat into Scammon during the whale season, and the government discourages all but those whale watchers with proper scientific credentials from getting close to the cetaceans there. San Ignacio Lagoon, between Scammon and Magdalena, can be reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles over an arduous 90-mile stretch of the Vizcaino Desert. For now, at least, Mag Bay is whale-watchers' heaven.

Flying up the bay from the south one recent morning, it was possible to count fully 150 whales rolling in the calm waters of the lagoon, most of them cows with calves at their sides. Mile-square rafts of waterfowl—black brant in the main—covered the mangrove-flanked shallows, and shore birds flew in white wreaths and plumes up and down the dunes. A colony of California sea lions basked along one stretch of Isla Santa Margarita, the big, broad-shouldered bulls charging and swatting at their frisky offspring. But it was the whales—barnacled, massive in their slow grace, snorting house-high cones of vapor—that dominated the nature show.

The whales begin to show up in December, with the main body of the migration all present and accounted for by the beginning of the year. The cows, which are pregnant—they carry their young 13 months—stay in the nursery lagoon south of the Shroyers' camp. The mothers push their babies to the surface for their first breaths. It's quite a sight—a spreading swirl of blood in the blue water and then the baby blowing for the first time. Some baby! A newborn gray is about 15 feet long and weighs half a ton.

A nursing calf consumes 50 gallons of milk daily, and the milk is rich—40% butterfat, as opposed to 3.5% in dairy cows' milk. The females reach sexual maturity between five and 10, live to 30 or 40 and bear young every two or three years. A full-grown female may be as long as 48 feet and weigh 35 tons. Up to a quarter of this weight is blubber, not so much to keep the whales warm, as is commonly believed, but to store energy for use during the long winter fast off Baja and to streamline them. The grays spend the summer in the Arctic, from Siberia clear around to Point Barrow, Alaska, where each day they consume a ton or more of amphipods, little flealike, bottom-dwelling crustaceans.

From what sort of animal did the whale evolve? Scientists are not sure, but they believe from the mesonychid, a giant piglike creature that lived about 60 million years ago and slowly adapted to a marine environment to elude predators and to take advantage of a plentiful source of food. The size of a Kodiak bear, the mesonychid was low-slung, with a long snout and large triangular teeth. The baleen whales, of which the gray is one, probably evolved later from the toothed whales.

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