The Gentle Giants are Leaving Cabo

BY: RICK CASTAGNER

The annual whale migration passes Los Cabos in the winter months: thousands of whales make their annual 12,000-mile round-trip migration from the summer feeding grounds of Alaska to the calving grounds of Baja California Sur and the Sea of Cortez.

If you're coming to Los Cabos between December 15 and March 31, you will likely be treated to seeing many of these gentle giants. They put on their best show on the return migration to Alaska in March. The mothers are also training their calves at this time.

You're sure to love whale watching in Los Cabos. They are the biggest celebrities in Cabo and they arrive like clockwork every winter. They don’t stay in plush resorts or dine in fancy restaurants. Instead, they put on wild shows in the ocean for the thousands who have come just to see them.

Baja California Sur is one of the best world destinations to see whales. The Sea of Cortez {“the world’s aquarium,” as it was referred to by the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau) and the Pacific coast of the peninsula have 80% of all marine mammals found in Mexican waters. During the winter, Mexico is not only a great place for people to escape the cold weather but for whales as well.

Whales undergo a seasonal migration from Alaska (where they feed during the summer) to the waters of Baja California to mate and give birth.

The Blue Whale

By far the largest animal that ever lived on Earth – bigger than even the dinosaurs! Blue Whales grow up to 110 feet (34 m) and can weigh as much as 174 tons. They eat krill and small fish. Blue Whales are an endangered species and a sight you will never forget.

During their southward migration, they often follow a direct route along the Californian and Mexican coast. During the months of March and April, Blue whales are often sighted in the deep central basins and along the western side of the Gulf of California. During their northward migration Blue whales sometimes hang out in the coastal waters of central and northern Baja California. You may have an incredible encounter with the biggest living mammal on the planet.

Gray Whale

 A whale that grows up to 50 feet (14 m) long and weighs up to 40 tons. Gray Whales are bottom feeders. Gray Whales migrate from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula in winter and are a protected species. Their population in the North Atlantic waters has become extinct; however, it’s still possible to sight them in the North Pacific waters. They are known for their long annual migration every year starting in the fall, with females, in late pregnancy appearing first. By mid-February, most of them have already given birth to their calves around or within the lagoons and Magdalena Bay region. The gray whale migration back to the feeding grounds is divided in two phases: the first consists of newly pregnant females who go first to maximize feeding time, followed by adult females and males, then juveniles. The second phase consists of mothers and calves. It should be noted that Mexico has recognized the importance of the breeding lagoons to the recovery of the gray whale. Mexico is the only nation to provide important habitat protection for the eastern population. The gray whale has a curious behavior for approaching boats and people letting whale watchers pet them. Because of this temperament, they are known as “friendly whales”. This results in a unique opportunity where people can be blessed with close encounters with gray whales that are to be found only along the Mexican coast.

Humpback Whales

The Humpbacks steal the show during the whaling season. They are the whale with a large hump as a part of its dorsal fin. Humpbacks are famous for leaping out of the water, slapping its fins and flukes on the water, and of course, the beautiful songs that include long sequences of squeaks, grunts, and other sounds. They eat mostly krill, plankton, and herring and are a protected species.

Despite being one of four separate breeding grounds in the North Pacific, Baja is the most popular destination for Humpbacks all year. Humpback whales also frequent Baja during the winter months for mating and nursery. Humpbacks are known for their frequent acrobatic behavior and their occasional tendency to approach vessels. Male humpback whales sing to attract the female in the winter. All whales in a given population sing essentially the same song. They also coordinate changes to their song over time however there is little information about this practice. In addition, breaching, blowing, spy-hopping or slapping head, tail and pectoral fins in the water are behaviors that are common. March is one of the best months to sight humpback whales in Cabo. Males usually remain in the area for a longer period attempting to obtain repeated mating. Their “aggressive” behavior when competing for females is often witnessed by aerial activities. Females with their calves are also regularly sighted during this month.

Watch for these very entertaining behaviors:

Breach: The whale propels at least 40 percent and up to 90 percent of its body out of the water almost vertically, then turns mid-air onto its side or back producing a large splash that can be seen for miles. This splash can displace several tons of water.

Head Slap: A head slap occurs when a whale quickly propels the upper portion of its body, sometimes up to the mouth, out of the water, and then forcefully crashes back down onto the surface of the water. This can possibly signify aggressive behavior towards other whales.

Peduncle Arc: Seen just before a deep descent, this is where the Humpback Whale receives his name. The whale will force his back out of the water for a more vertical descent, usually followed by a fluke up.

Flipper Slap: While at the surface, a whale can barrel roll onto its side and slap the water with its pectoral fin. This behavior can also be seen while a whale is on its back, slapping the water with both fins.

Blow: The most common activity to see from a whale is when he breaths or spouts at the surface. The whales’ exhalation is forced with a blast out of its blow hole, producing a cloud of mist. The blow is one way to identify certain types of whales. Gray Whales have 2 blowholes and spout a V-shape, while Blue Whales spout a very large, very dense spout.

Tail Slap: Using their tail flukes a whale will forcefully slap the surface of the water from either a vertical or horizontal position.

Spy hop: The whale will lift its head out of the water in a vertical orientation until just above his pectoral fin, and then spin slowly in a 180-degree fashion. Whales like watching humans too.

Songs: Humpback whales are known for their beautiful song sessions, which are known to last several hours and up to 2 days. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and are specific to each individual population on humpbacks.

Every trip to Cabo is not complete without enjoying a day on the ocean with the migrating whales. You can see a variety of whales on a daily basis during the season. If you want to know what it feels like when you see and hear a 20-ton massive whale breaching out of the water, come to Cabo between December 15 and March 31.

Seeing or being near these Gentle Giants is an unforgettable experience.