Whale Watching Around The World Part 2
Breeding and Spring Training
At the height of the breeding season, at least 600 whales have been counted along San Ignacio's 60 square miles. Although boats are banned from the inner sanctums where gray whales give birth, courtship between the sexes may be observed in February where the lagoon meets the Pacific. By mid-March, the males wait just outside the lagoon to be joined by their herd.
Meanwhile, the calves go through a kind of spring training in preparation for their coming journey. Even at birth in the shallowest reaches of the lagoon, a baby gray whale weighs upward of 1,500 pounds and is 15 feet long. It gains about 200 pounds a day while nursing on milk rich in fat. They gather strength by swimming, as on a treadmill, against strong tidal currents. And they greet, for the first time, the human race that will follow their path from points on shore and from whale-watching boats as the grays pass within a few miles of the California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska coasts. By the time it departs with its mother for the long arctic migration, the calf will have doubled in size.
About a thousand people annually make this pilgrimage to Laguna San Ignacio, usually in February and March. They arrive either by chartered plane or along the spectacular trans-peninsular Highway One that winds through coastline, mountains, and desert about a day-and-a-half's drive from the U.S. border. The final stretch is a rough one, 30 miles of rutted dirt road leading out of the oasis town of San Ignacio and along the salt flats of the Vizcaino Desert. But this, all would agree, is a token price for admission.
Take a Bow
If there is even a slight chop on the water, the gray whales will not approach a boat. Instead, they are content with performing for camera-laden viewers. Bursting from the water, they launch as much as three-quarters of their body skyward and turn onto their back or side before hurtling back into the sea. Sometimes first the mother and then the calf breach, several times in a row with about a 15-second interval in between. Yet the whales maintain enough distance from the panga to scarcely make waves. They spyhop for up to 30 seconds after a dive, lingering above water and scanning the horizon. Then their 12-foot-long tail flukes arch into the air before descending with a mighty splash.
2. Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, California
Santa Barbara is an uncommonly wealthy community, in terms of both income and natural beauty. Whale tea parties are held regularly in the kelp beds just offshore, and newcomers are always welcome. Not that tea is actually served, of course. Tea party is a term coined by local skippers to describe the phenomenon of several female gray whales resting together in the kelp, nursing their young. Whale-watching boats approach to about 100 yards of groups, which can number five or more mother-offspring pairs. Calves, curious, like most children, often leave their mothers to investigate boats, much to the delight of passengers.