This is part 2 of the 3-part blog post about my trip to Baja California in Mexico as part of a tour organized and executed by Jim Cline. This covers our 3-day stay in Guerrero Negro to photograph the gray whales in a lagoon west of the town. Click here to view Part 1.
Feb 26 (Day 3)
It was our first day to have experienced the behaviors of gray whales. We got up early and got on the van to the nearby lagoon. On the way, we stopped for a few minutes at a small pond beside the road to photograph a tri-colored heron that was in search of its breakfast.
Whales have long captured the human imagination. The planet’s largest creatures, they spend the better part of their lives deeply submersed in oceans. Those fleeting glimpses we get when they breach, fluke, or bubble-net only deepens our curiosity, as we’re left at the surface wondering about their daily lives. But in Baja California, it’s a different story. There, in the warm protected lagoons gray whales are equally curious about us as we are of them. You can find genuinely curious and playful mother whales approaching small boats, even lifting up their calves for a welcome pat on the head. It seems especially puzzling since gray whale mothers are known to be fierce protectors of their young, yet this behavior only seems to happen in these birthing lagoons. Even more surprising? The fact that gray whales seem so enamored with humans, considering our dark history with them. Twice in the last 150 years, these whales came dangerously close to extinction, harpooned by the thousands. Protections were finally put in place in 1946 and these gentle giants have made a remarkable recovery—their numbers have climbed to about 26,000 which is thought to be close to pre-whaling accounts. It’s the only baleen whale to have ever successfully recovered from commercial whaling.
They may be friendly today, but gray whales once earned a very different nickname—the ‘devilfish’—since mother whales would aggressively defend their calves by thrashing against the whalers’ boats. This hostile reputation lingered for years until the 1970s when a curious gray whale approached a boat. The fishermen moved away but the whale continued to come closer, sticking its head out of the water. Finally, one brave soul decided to cross a tremendous divide—he reached out a gentle hand and touched the whale. This peace treaty has evolved into a seemingly unique whale culture. Many mothers are passing down this behavior by encouraging their young to approach small boats and helping them get closer by lifting them towards the surface. An incredible behavior that has left scientists and civilians alike completely baffled.
Gray whales are not the biggest of whales. Below is a chart showing the sizes of various whales.
Gray whale is a baleen whale that reaches a length of about 50 feet, a weight of up to 90,000 lb and lives between 55 and 70 years. Traveling as much as 12000 miles per year, it is known to make the longest migration trips of any known mammal. Each year around October, the ones in and around the eastern pacific Alaskan waters begin their migration trip from their feeding grounds to their mating grounds around the Baja peninsula of Mexico and the southern Gulf of California.
As the Alaskan waters begin to freeze over and their food supply migrates to warmer climates, these large marine animals also begin their trip to warmer tropical climates. During this migration trip, the gray whale travels at an average speed of around 5 mph for two to three months until it reaches its destination.
Pregnant females are often the first whales to arrive at the mating grounds. They need to find protection for their soon-to-be newborn children from potential predators such as killer whales and sharks, which may be interested in hunting their defenseless children. Non-pregnant but fertile females may also be found arriving early to look for an eager mating partner.
By mid-February to March, most of the population can be seen mating, socializing, and giving birth at the mating grounds. Throughout March, gray whales that have finished mating may begin traveling back towards their feeding grounds in the eastern pacific with pregnant mothers and females that have just given birth staying behind until mid-April to May before leaving.
This is likely to ensure that they have enough time to recover from the mating season and make sure their young will be able to safely make the long trip back to their feeding grounds around the Alaskan waters.
Jim had arranged for two pangas a few miles east of the town to experience the whales. The area is within the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve of Mexico. Each boat took 3-4 photographers and so we all had ample space to move around. Photo tip: Carry two bodies, one with a telephoto zoom (80-400mm is ideal) as well as a wide zoom (16-35mm is a good choice). On the first day, I underestimated the need for a wide angle lens. You will benefit from one as the mammals will come close to you and the distance between you and them will be significantly shorter than the minimum focus distance of the lens. I set my cameras in Auto ISO mode, shutter speed between 1/500sec and 1/1500sec and aperture between f7.1 and f11 depending on the light.
This was our first of the three whale watching rides. It took me an hour to get comfortable and also to get acquainted with the whale behaviors. A number of whales and their calves came close to our boat, and I touched a few of them. I soon realized the need to balance capturing great images and experiencing these amazing creatures and understanding their behavior up close. We did three rides each lasting about three hours to achieve both objectives successfully. Below are some images captured on our first ride.
In the image above, a mother nudges her calf to be petted by humans and at the same time ensuring its safety. We saw this behavior numerous times over the three days.
Sometimes, whales come straight at a boat, and you get the feeling it might topple it but stops just in time for you to touch it. It was a bit scary initially, but you get used to it soon.
The above whale lingered around our boat for a few minutes. All of us had the opportunity to touch it.
On the first trip, I was unsuccessful in capturing a good image of a whale breaching or spyhopping. This required constant watch all around the boat as those events take less than a second or two. It is a challenge as a number of whales are doing different things around you at the same time and that required focus (no pun intended) and prioritization. I observed that the whales rarely breached near boats. This required use of a much longer focal length lens. All my first trip images were captured using a 24-120mm standard zoom on a full frame camera. During the second and third trip, I decided to prioritize breaching and spyhopping over capturing the animals up close. I switched to an APC sensor camera with an 80-400m tele zoom to capture the two behaviors.
Feb 27 (Day 4)
We were back at the Guererro Negro lagoon in the morning. This time, I switched to an 80-400mm telephoto zoom to photograph breaches and spyhops. It is tough to photograph these behaviors for the following reasons: (a) The lagoon is quite large, and the whales do not preannounce their intentions. (b) There are lot of whales around you and you do not know which one is going to breach or spyhop. (3) The whales don’t breach or spyhop frequently. (4) The action only lasts 2-3 seconds and you have to aim, focus and shoot when the action is at its peak. I continue to capture other behaviors while waiting for a breach or a spyhop.
We encountered a boat with about a dozen school kids. A whale was swimming along side them and decided to do a small chin slap and the kids had an unforgettable experience.
A spyhop is when a whale sticks its head out of the water to have a look at what is going on up on the surface. Finally at the end of the second trip, I succeeded in capturing a syhop.
Feb 28 (Day 5)
Today was our last day at Guererro Negro and we did our final trip to the lagoon. It was my last chance to successfully photograph a breach. I had failed miserably on the previous two outings in the lagoon. Poor focus and poor timing were the causes. I had to change my approach. Focus (no pun intended) just on a breach and place less emphasis on capturing other behaviors.
Whales are curious and playful animals. We saw a few constantly go around boats and at other times, dive and swim under the boats and pop up on the other side while the folks in the boat are looking for them on the opposite side. Once a whale swam under a boat and did a spyhop when the folks were looking in the opposite direction.
Time was running out and I was yet to capture a breach. Then I partially succeeded in capturing the end of a breach. By the time I lifted the camera and looked through the viewfinder, most of the action was over.
About 15 minutes before we turned around to get back to the dock, we got lucky. A whale did a set of breaches every 2-3 minutes. Now we knew where the whale was and when it will most likely do a breach. Below are shots of two breaches.
Soon we started to get back to the shore. On the way, we encountered a coloney of sea lions, some swimming and some lounging on a structure close to the shore. One popped out of the water for a second to see what was going on around it.
We got off the boat at around noon and drove back to the hotel. On the way, we checked out our osprey for the last time to find out what it was up to. It was lunch time for it and its mate, and it was busy fetching food. I grabbed a few shots.
We got back to the hotel for lunch. After lunch, we loaded our luggage on the van and drove to the town of San Ignacio, 90 minutes away southeast of Guerrero Negro.
Part 3 covering the final leg of the tour is here.