Touched by a Whale: The Friendly Gray Whales of Laguna San Ignacio

As I peered over the side of the boat in anticipation, a geyser of salty water blasted me in the face. I laughed out loud, feeling like I’d been nailed by a kid with a squirt gun. This ‘kid’, a 15-foot gray whale calf weighing over a ton, had surprised me with a shower from his blow hole. This, my first gray whale encounter, felt playful and friendly. The joke was on me!

Jenny Pavlovic Meets a Gray Whale in Laguna San Ignacio

I was in a panga, a small fishing boat, in the vast Laguna San Ignacio gray whale sanctuary on the west coast of Baja California, Mexico. There, gray whales are born between January and March in the warm, shallow waters of the last undeveloped nursery and breeding ground of the Pacific Gray Whale. During the birthing season, when fishing is prohibited, the Mexican fishermen become ecotourism guides, introducing visitors to the whales. Tourists spot distant whales when they breach in the air, rotating and landing with a huge splash, when they surface to breathe, leaving telltale “blows” of exhaled air, when they spy hop, thrusting their heads out of the water to look around, and when their tail flukes break the surface. Six to eight visitors per small boat wait for friendly whales to approach, for the chance to touch and be touched by a whale.

Imagine the care and precision it takes for a 44-foot, 70,000 pound whale to gently swim beside an idling boat less than half its length to be touched and kissed by people leaning over the side. Why do the friendly gray whales seek interaction with humans? Why is it as important for them to know us as it is for us to know them? Perhaps they realize their survival depends on our appreciation and awe. Why aren’t we afraid when these enormous creatures swim under the small boats, then surface and boost their calves up to meet us? The whales could easily capsize our boat, yet we trust their good intentions and aren’t disappointed. Instead, we’re excited to touch them and look them in the eye, to connect with these giant beings.

The Mexican fishermen used to fear the gigantic gray whales due to whale hunters’ tales of fierceness and aggressiveness. But in the spring of 1972, an experienced fisherman named Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral had an unusual encounter with a gray whale that followed his 18-foot panga as he tried to flee. Mayoral was terrified by the huge animal’s approach, fearing he wouldn’t survive a close encounter. The whale spy hopped next to the boat and looked Mayoral in the eye. Then it gently rubbed against the boat and stayed with the boat for almost an hour. Although frightened, Mayoral eventually reached out his hand and touched the whale, changing him forever. That day, whales and fishermen began to trust one another.

I was invited to Laguna San Ignacio by Mary Getten, animal communicator and author of Communicating with Orcas. Our adventurous travel companions ranged in age from their teens to their 70s. The group met in San Diego. Baja Discovery ( provided transportation via bus, plane and boat for our own migration to the remote Laguna San Ignacio camp, which isn’t accessible by road. The camp sits on a rocky point, looking out over the mouth of the 16-mile long lagoon.

From camp, we sighted gray whales breaching and spy hopping, saw the telltale blows and heard their breathing. Naturalists gave informative presentations on the whales and the region’s natural history. When we weren’t out in the pangas meeting whales, activities included searching the beach for whale bones, exploring tide pools, playing beach volleyball and horseshoes (“herraduras”), speaking Spanish with the Mexican fishermen and cooks, viewing gorgeous sunsets while listening to the whales, and learning about different kinds of whales from the outhouse “whale hugger” poster. At night we slept in tents, listening to the distant, soothing sounds of the whales breathing. In the mornings, we joined Mary Getten on the shore for toning. The group hummed or sang a tone to the whales and watched them magically gather, breaching and spy hopping in response to our singing.

The history of human interactions with the whales is not this friendly. The North American Pacific Coast Gray Whales were twice hunted to near extinction. In the 1800’s, mother whales were massacred in Laguna San Ignacio in large numbers, leaving their newborn calves to perish. Since 1946, the gray whales have been protected by international agreement. Their population has recovered to about 23,000. They were taken off the endangered species list, but are still considered threatened. Gray whale survival is sensitive to habitat disturbance (including offshore drilling), oil spills, chemical pollution, marine debris (especially plastics), entanglement in nets, resumption of commercial hunting (sometimes labeled ‘research’), and human disturbance. Ultimately, their survival depends on a healthy ocean environment. Perhaps as more people connect with the whales, the more secure their future will be.

Mexico protects the Laguna San Ignacio gray whale sanctuary, but recently the area was threatened by proposed industrial development, a massive salt plant to be built near the lagoon. When this joint venture with Mitsubishi Corporation seemed imminent, legend has it that a local fisherman took the wife of Mitsubishi’s president out in his panga to interact with the whales. Once she was intimately touched by the whales, plans to build the salt plant were cancelled. Indeed, the whale that first approached Pachico Mayoral in 1972 may have saved its species.

As we prepared to leave Laguna San Ignacio, I recognized Pachico Mayoral at the remote desert airstrip. Aging and weather-beaten, with a twinkle in his eye, he said farewell to those waiting to board the plane and prepared to welcome the new arrivals. Pachico and his family continue to introduce adventurers to the “friendlies” among the gray whales. With a tear in my eye, I silently thanked the whale for reaching out in 1972, and thanked Pachico for bravely accepting the whale’s gift.

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Gray Whale Discovery Cards by Jim Nehmans and Jim Peckarsky

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