Wondrous Wildlife

By Vern and Lori Gieger

Gentle Giants


wonderousMany people are avid bird watchers. However, time spent observing wildlife is not just limited to birds, whether it is that adorable hummingbird in your garden or something much larger. This time of year is a great time to head to the coast and spend a few hours whale watching. You can book an exclusive tour, or simply make arrangements with a local fisherman; prices vary but I found you can go out watching for approximately two hours for $600.00 pesos.

December through February, Grey whales are southbound from Alaska to Mexico. Adults measure 45 to 50 feet, and may weigh 30 to 40 tons. Frequently visible from shore, gray whales provide a unique opportunity for observation via land and boat. Visitors to the breeding areas often encounter the “friendlies,” gray whales that approach small boats and allow themselves to be touched by humans.

Gray whales in Mexican waters are surprisingly warm to the touch. Their skin is not as smooth as that of the dolphin, because when the barnacles are finally scraped off, a slight indentation is left in the skin. The head and front flippers are used for directional control, and the tail is used for propulsion. That tail is about five meters wide and is said to generate about 500 horse power.

Most gray whales are born in the shallow lagoons in Baja California. While in the lagoons the mothers teach their calves how to swim. That’s right, the mothers must teach the calves how to swim, supporting them for the first few days of life. The calves instinctively know to breathe when their blowhole is out of the water and close it when it is not. While in the lagoons the mothers take the calves to the mouth of the lagoons and have them swim against the tides when it changes. Mother and calf are also seen swimming laps to help get the babies in shape for their long swim to summer Arctic feeding grounds.

The baby calves are about five meters long at birth and weigh about a ton, or perhaps a bit more. That’s about the size of a small car. The calves drink milk that is 55% fat. The normal milk you have on your kitchen table is less than 4% fat. On this diet the baby whales gain about 50 kilos a day.

Gray whales have been called devil fish because of the immense love the mothers show for their calves. Let me explain. When man was hunting the grays almost to extinction-twice-the whalers would harpoon the baby whales to get at the large mother whales. The mother would attempt to attack the whalers to save her calf, and she herself would then be killed as well. Whalers did hunt the gray whales that lived along the Asian coast to extinction. Fortunately, in 1946 gray whales became legally protected and have increased to over 21,000 souls. With the number of whales approaching what is thought to be historical numbers along the North American coast the whales have been removed from the endangered species list, but are still protected by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the International Whaling Commission, and by the Marine Protection Act of 1972.

(Note: This column is dedicated to Aileen McTauge—hope you see some whales.)

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