Sunday, February 08, 2015

Gray Whale Hanky-Panky

Greetings All,
A very long 8-hour drive brought us to the town of San Ignacio where we spent the night of Jan. 31. The following morning we drove about 48 km due west on a paved road before arriving at San Ignacio Lagoon.  The pavement ended and we proceeded another 20 km on a rutted dirt road to Campo Cortez, home for the next 4 nights.


Campo Cortez
 
We checked into our cozy cabin before heading out on our first whale watching excursion in the afternoon.  There were more whales here than in Magdalena.  The last count on Jan. 27 was up to 233 whales.  We could see their blows all around us but none were interested in approaching our boat. Suddenly our guide, Noly, spots several whales cavorting about.  There was a lot of fluke waving, splashing and rolling going on.


Cavorting Gray Whales

We guessed that they were in the process of mating or at least foreplay.  We had no doubts when a "double Pink Floyd" appeared on the surface of the water!

"Double Pink Floyd" 

Obviously, a Pink Floyd is a slang term for a Gray Whale's penis (we had a six-year old on board). I'm sure many of you are wondering "how long is a gray whale's penis?"  The answer is 1-1.7 m or 3-5.5 feet long!  We didn't see the actual mating as it is presumed to occur belly to belly under the water.  In fact few have ever witnessed it and even fewer have filmed it.  We watched for about an hour before a final Pink  Floyd waved a goodbye!
 

"Pink Floyd"

Over the course of 7 more whale watching excursions we learned a lot more about Gray Whales. Originally there were three distinct populations.  The North Atlantic population has gone extinct. The Western North Pacific population is critically endangered with as few as 130 individuals remaining. The Eastern North Pacific population which we were observing,  has recovered from a very low level of around 160 to over 20,000 today and was removed from the U.S. endangered Species List in 1994 - a big conservation success story!  Gray Whales differ from other whales in that they do not have a dorsal fin.  Instead they have 6-12 bumps called knuckles that extend down the midline of the tail stock almost to the flukes.

Gray Whale 'Knuckles"
 
Gray Whales are born a uniform gunmetal gray and become a mottled gray and white color as they age.   Many of the whales had pink or orange blotches nestled in between larger barnacles on their heads and upper torso.  These patches are cyamids, commonly referred to as "whale lice" and feed on the tattered skin damaged by the attachment of barnacles. 

Barnacles and "Whale Lice" on a Gray Whale
 
Unlike Magdalena Bay, there were many female whales with calves!  Just months old, the calves kept close to mom often swimming onto her back to rest.

Gray Whale Calf and Mother

At this stage the calves resemble pickles with their wrinkled and dimpled heads.  Each dimple contains a single bristle or vibrssae which have a sensory function and may assist the calf with nursing.


Gray Whale Calf

 At two months of age a calf is just a fraction its mothers weight, weighing around 2200 kg compared to mom's 17,300 kg mass!  The calves grow fast, gaining 60-70 lbs. per day on their mothers fat-rich (53%) milk.  At this age the mothers are still very protective of their calves and would not let them approach our boat.  One little fellow thought he was old enough for human contact and headed straight for me.   I was able to touch him on his cute wrinkly nose!

Touching a Gray Whale Calf! (Photo Courtesy of Jim Dorsey)

In San Ignacio we were able to view whale behavior that we did not see in Magdalena Bay.  In addition to the mating already described, the whales in San Ignacio tend to spyhop more. Spyhopping is when a whale raises his head out of the water to get a look at his surroundings or to orient itself.

Gray Whale Spyhopping
 
When more than one whale spyhopped at the same time they looked like synchronized swimmers performing for our enjoyment.  We were also able to observe another behavior in Magdalena and San Ignacio called breaching.  Here a whale propels herself out of the water and crashes back to the surface with a big splash.  Most of the breaches were in the distance but if you see the first one, a whale is likely to breach up to 4 times more.  Marc was able to capture a breach by focusing on the spot and waiting for the next breach to happen.

Gray Whale Breaching
 
It's not known why a whale breaches.  Some think it is to get rid of barnacles but they are firmly attached and breaching does not remove them.  Maybe they are simply jubilant after completing the long migration south.  To reach the wintering lagoons they have to swim non-stop.  In order to do this the Gray Whales have developed uni-hemisphere slow wave sleep during which half the brain sleeps while the other half stays alert.  During migration and in the wintering lagoons, the whales don't do much foraging.  They save this for the return to the Bering and Chukchi Seas during the summer months.  Gray Whales are bottom feeders, diving to 70 meters to suck food into their mouths.  They stay submerged for up to 20-30 minutes before surfacing to exhale air through their two blow holes.

Two Blowholes of a Gray Whale calf
 
As the season progresses, the whales become more friendly, frequently approaching boats to be petted and rubbed.  Often they will stay with a boat for over an hour.  Unfortunately, it was time for us to leave the lagoon but we will return to visit the Gray Whales again.  I can't think of any other animal that approaches humans for contact without food involved, can you?

We extended our stay in San Ignacio to visit one of the caves with rock art.  To get to the trailhead we had to drive about 40 km on a rutted, rocky dirt road.  The desert scenery along the way was stunning.  The recent rains had "greened-up" the desert and it looked like a cactus garden on steroids. The most abundant species is the Cardon Cactus, the worlds largest cactus.  It can grow up to 70 feet in height and live as long as 300 years!  Many first time visitors to Baja mistake this giant cactus for the similar saguaro cactus.

Cardon Cactus
 
We met our guide at the trailhead and hiked for about 2 miles to El Palmerito.  The cave is actually a rock overhang with paintings on its walls and ceiling  4000 years old!  There were human and animal (deer, puma and a turtle) figures.  Some of the male figures appeared to be wearing a horn-shaped hat or is it their hair?

Rock Rock in El Palmerito
 

Rock Art in El Palmerito
 
Spanish missionaries knew about the caves back in the 1700's but they only became known to the outside world in 1962 so not much is known about them.  Two weeks isn't nearly enough time to explore Baja California Sur.  There is so much to see and do here, unparalleled Gray Whale watching, swimming with whale sharks and sea lions, kayaking through mangroves, birding, hiking through spectacular desert scenery to caves with ancient rock art and the list goes on.  Now that we've discovered this hidden gem, we will be back!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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