Grey Whales and Whalewatching Collectives

Every year thousands of gray whales migrate up to 12,400 miles from the Arctic waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas, near Alaska, to the warm waters of the western coast of Baja California Sur.  There they reproduce and raise their young.  In the 1970s, the Mexican government set aside two lagoons: Ojo de Liebre (where we went whale watching) and San Ignacio Lagoon, as protected areas.   This has helped to bring the species back from near extinction, with the current grey whale population estimated at 21,000.

Grey whales are huge but playful creatures with adults measuring up to 50 feet in length and weighing as much as 30 tons.  One of them followed our boat for half an hour and came so close we could reach out and touch it.  We could see whales spouting in all directions and this was only the beginning of the whale watching season which runs from January to March.  We followed a mother and her newborn baby from a distance as they swam and played in the lagoon.  The fishermen said it gets especially crowded with whales in February.

“Grey” is actually a misnomer, as grey whales are truly black, but appear grey from a distance because of the barnacles and other sea organisms that attach to their skin.  Grey whales are mammals that feed on plankton, amphipods and small crustations.  Instead of teeth they have flexible baleen plates that strain seawater, trapping their food.  They only reproduce every other year - mating one year and giving birth the next.

In the town of Guerrero Negro where we went whalewatching, there are three private companies that bring tourists out to see the whales.  They charge about $45 per person for a four-hour whalewatching trip.  We chose to snoop around town a bit, and found an alternative to going with these tourist companies: the Fisherman's Cooperative.  During whale season, local fishermen cannot go out and fish - in the past, they simply moved to other locations to fish during this time of year, either commuting or moving far from their families for three months.  This year, they are working together to bring tourists out to see the whales themselves - they realize that they are the ones who have experience in those waters, they already own the boats, and they have extensive knowledge of the sea.  Of course, they are competing with the private whalewatching companies that seemingly have the monopoly on tourism, but they are hopeful that this project will allow them a new source of income during this time of year.  The cooperative, which will support 25 families, will become an alternative livelihood which allows them not only to stay home in Guerrero Negro, but to share their knowledge of the sea with others.