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Springtime in the Lagoon: A Big School
By Carolina Armon, Guide at Baja Ecotours
San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico

Spring has arrived here in San Ignacio Lagoon. The temperature has finally warmed up to the 80’s F in the afternoons, but evenings and mornings are still chilly. Sometimes the nights are calm and we can hear the whales breathing, right along with the coyotes yelping!

The lagoon is now like a big nursery-elementary-middle school. (I think the calves "graduate high school" when the moms get them up to the feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.) We have observed every behavior on our trips out on the water:

Spring Training
Lately, it seems as though the whales have been practicing endurance swimming. They are getting ready for the big trip and the big oceans! Moms swim with the babies against the currents near the mouth of the lagoon to build up the babies' strength and endurance. They will need it on the long journey north!

Do you see the mud circle?
(enlarge)
Photo Caroline Armon

Snack Practice
Many books still say the grays don’t feed on the migration or in the lagoons. Well, they do — but it's more like snacking than the feasting that goes on in the cold, food-rich Arctic. Very little food is in the bottom sediment for the gray whales, yet the water is rich in plankton and algae. We see the moms teaching the babies how to suck up a mouthful of the bottom of the lagoon, just as they'll do in the cold northern feeding waters. The lagoon is very shallow in many places, and we see whales on their side, with pectoral fin and tail fluke above the water. Then they roll up and we see the mud circles on top of the water when their large tongues push the water and sediment out through their baleen so they can swallow the crustaceans and critters left behind in their mouths.

Whales at Play
Much of the literature also says the gray whales don’t socialize. I think they do, but in ways we don’t recognize as socializing. Besides, we are only seeing a small portion of the whales' lives above the water. It was exciting to observe the calves in tight groups for about a week, with their moms — all playing with one another! I call it play because they were swimming together, rolling over each other, doing headstands and cartwheels over each other, and touching each other. It was awesome to watch!



Photo Adrienne DeLiso, Baja Ecotours

 

Photo Adrienne DeLiso

Whales at Rest
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises can’t fully fall sleep or they would drown. So they have adapted by resting one hemisphere (one half) of their brain at a time. Too cool! One day we drove the boat very slowly up to a resting adult female. We quietly reached over to touch her. She appeared to rest the entire time we touched and rubbed her, staying at the surface and taking a shallow breath every now and then.


 

Photo Caroline Armon
Whale Kisses and More
The calves are bigger now and the moms seem relaxed. Some moms enjoy the touch of tourists as much as the babies do, so we have been interacting on every recent boat trip! We have even been kissing the whales and checking out their baleen! I have noticed younger, maybe first-time moms who sometimes seek more attention than their babies! I think they must have been touched as calves, because they are right by the boats to get the touches. We still get whales gently bumping the boat. Sometimes we even get lifted and moved about, so we are ‘whale riding’ too!

Saving the Nursery Lagoons
This really is a sacred, wild place. I am grateful the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance for attempting to keep it that way. The alliance has been able to buy conservation easements of 120,000 acres on the south side of the lagoon. The goal is to raise $10 million to conserve 1 million acres. This can help keep the whales safe from high-rise hotels being built on the beaches, oil and gas drilling noise and leaks in the water, or the bustle of a big salt production everywhere.


Journal or Dicussion Question

  • What would you say to someone who believes high-rise hotels, oil and gas drilling, or a big salt production facility should be built in this lagoon?

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