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Thar She Blows
Julie Maxey-Allison | 10th Street

Whale letting off steam. Photo Don Mosier.
Click to enlarge.
It’s December! Busy time! It’s busy, too, for gray whales. Now through February some 20,000 will parade south through our waters on their annual migration from Alaska to the lagoons of Baja California where the many pregnant mothers will give birth to their calves.These warm-blooded gray whales, the official California marine mammal, are on the first half of their 10,000 mile round trip, the longest known annual migratory route for any animal.

Take time to catch their passing show. Look west. Scan the horizon. Out there, on the calm Pacific Ocean stage, you’ll spot the whale’s spectacular performance art: white plume-like puffs shooting up 6-12 feet high. The spouts are their exhales, warm air from blowholes on the top of their heads as they breathe. They usually surface every three to five minutes, though they can stay submerged up to fifteen. When traveling in a group, or pod, their misty jets look to be a steam engine on the move. Don’t be sidetracked by bird splashes. Extra sharp eyes may spy a fluke as they dive down.

Petting a whale.
Photo Julie Maxey-Allison.
Click to enlarge.

They are sizable, though merely mid-size on a whale scale, at 40-50 feet long and 50,000-80,000 pounds. We wouldn’t be seeing them without the International Whaling Commission, established 1946, that regulates whaling across the world’s oceans. By the 1940s commercial whalers had killed off all but 2000 gray whales. They recovered and were removed from endangered species list in 1994.
Once arrived in the Baja California lagoons, San Ignacio being one of the favorites, the females give birth. The newborn calves weigh in at about 1500 pounds, measure 12 to 15 feet long and are actually adorable. They linger in the lagoons for several months while the calves grow large and strong enough for the return trip.

If you miss them on their southern trek, there is a second chance to see the whale show as their return north. They may swim closer in, with the calves on the shore side, possibly to protect them from attacks from predators.
Another option is to go out on a whale watching boat from a local harbor. Or, should you want to meet the new families face to face in Baja California, there are groups tours from San Diego to the lagoons and onto open panga boats. There, amazingly, for a very specific slot of time, the mother and calf whales are social. They “spy hop” half way out of the water to take in the scene and some glide close to a panga to investigate. Once they make friends with people, they approach the boats and, like puppies, like to be petted.

 

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