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Gray Whales in the Baja California Peninsula

by | Jan 27, 2020

You are overlooking the ocean shoreline off the Baja California peninsula. A spectacular view of crystal blue waters lies ahead of you. Your toes sink in the sand while you wait for the next panga to take you offshore. You then board a boat of local operators who’ve learned to live in harmony with their environment: sustainably fish during the summer and guide tours in the winter. You’re about to come into close-proximity with a 40-foot, 40-ton cetacean that has traveled over 5000 miles to get here. You are in one of the most special places on Earth– a Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the last places on earth where gray whales can give birth and raise their young. You’re about to live the Laguna San Ignacio experience.

Gray whales (escherichtius robustus) are one of the oldest mammals on the planet. They’ve been evolving for more than 30 million years. Gray whales migrate approximately 12,000 roundtrip-miles annually during the months of January, February and March from Alaska, in order to reach these peaceful waters. These whales have traveled here for many years, but they haven’t always had an amicable relationship with humans. In the past, gray whales, like many other whale species, were hunted for their blubber, bones, and meat. These whales would fiercely defend their young and lash out to fishers when hunted. This behavior earned them the nickname of “Devil Fish” by many locals.

One fateful day in 1972, a group of fishermen lead by Don Pachico, a local fisherman with deep roots in the Laguna San Ignacio community, encountered a pod of whales. Don Pachico, against everything he was told while growing up by his fishing elders, reached out and touched the whale. The whale seemed to enjoy the encounter and hung out next to their boat while Don Pachico pet it. Thanks to that fateful encounter, gray whales know to come to Laguna San Ignacio, because there, interaction with humans is not only safe but welcomed. Many visitors report whales seeking attention by coming up to the boats and even pushing their calves to the surface to show their young ones to humans.

The Laguna San Ignacio community has one of the best whale-watching management practices. They manage the number of boats and the amount of time they spend near the whales in order to prevent them from feeling stress. They also work with scientific researchers; help monitor the lagoon’s conservation and provide environmental education to their youth. However, none of this would’ve been possible if not for the strong partnership between residents and non-profits who helped establish critically needed area-protections. The International Community Foundation in partnership with the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance helped secure the permanent protection of over 340,000 acres of gray whale and adjacent habitat. Laguna San Ignacio is truly a very special place, a place where humans and whales continue to forge special bonds that will last a lifetime. 

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