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A Tale of Two Whales

A trip to Baja California drives home the perils of irresponsible whale watching

Ever since I watched David Attenborough’s face light up with glee at the sight of a blue whale on the BBC’s Life of Mammals series, I have harbored a not-so-secret ambition to see the largest mammal on Earth. Baja California in Mexico offers a rare chance to live that dream; this peninsula descends from the border with the United States, its coast studded with islands and sandbars. Endangered blue whales come here every winter to feed and reproduce. It should be perfect whale-watching territory. But when I finally got there last year, a nautical nightmare involving gray whales tarnished the whole experience.

 photo of whalePhoto by Philip BouchardWell regulated whale watching trips can benefit wildlife and humans alike, but poorly regulated ones can cause harm to whales. 

Blue whale-watching trips center around Loreto Bay on the east coast of the peninsula, about 700 miles south of Tijuana. Early in the morning on the day of our tour, we motored into the beautiful bay around Isla Carmen. We waited, anticipation mounting, but the glittering waters of the Sea of Cortez remained stubbornly whale-free. Just as our hopes were fading, there was an exhalation next to the boat, so loud that it made us jump.

And there it was — Attenborough’s blue whale. The blowhole appeared first, followed by a plume of whale breath that shot straight into the sky. The whale’s unfeasibly huge back cut through the water, nearly 100 feet of it, going on and on, until the tiny dorsal fin appeared. We got a hint of the fluke before the whale vanished. This sequence was repeated several times before the whale initiated a deep diving sequence. We cheered, we whooped, we almost cried.        

By this time, a flotilla of boats had caught up to us. They raced off towards a spout nearer the shoreline, but within a few hundred feet of the whales, the captains killed their speed, as required by law. There was good reason for that caution. Approaching whales too quickly, coming too close or making too much noise can stress or even harm these marine mammals. In fact, a government spotting boat, complete with red awning and Mexican crest, was watching us. Anyone that breached the rules risked losing their license.

Like most countries that offer whale-watching tours, Mexico too, has regulations to protect whales from over-eager tourists and their guides. These laws also make for better whale watching. Our experience was wonderful. The whales seemed unconcerned by our presence; we were maintaining a respectful distance yet could still make out the mottled pattern on their skin. And while there were probably too many boats (one or two bigger ones would have done the job), the captains were not aggressive.

Fast forward two days and we were at Puerto López Mateos, on the west coast of the Baja peninsula, to see the fabled gray whale. A Mexican friend had warned us of pushy boat captains. He had set us up instead with a captain at Puerto Chale, but the winds were up at that bay and the captain cancelled. We had spoken to lots of seemingly sensible people who raved about their gray whale experience; the whales had approached their boats; the tourists had looked deep into a spy-hopping whale eye and felt a connection. So we quashed our concerns and rented a boat.

Our captain motored into the bay and within ten seconds, we were cruising alongside a mother and her calf. She wasn’t interested in interacting, but he drove next to her so that we could take pictures. He was a little too close but the whale seemed undisturbed. After a few minutes, we headed  off to a knot of boats further into the bay. That is when things began to go wrong. The relatively small bay is sheltered by a long sandbank and the entrance to the inlet is narrow. There were already a dozen boats in the water around another mother and calf pair. Every time the whales moved, boats revved ahead of them. The whales couldn’t escape the bay; they found themselves pressed against the side of boats, under boats, hemmed in by boats. At one point the calf got separated from the mother. Our captain laughed. “¿Dónde estás Mama?” he asked — where are you mummy? He wasn’t being especially cruel — it was just another day of the same old whale watching for him.

Part of the problem is that all over the state, on billboards and brochures, you see pictures of people leaning out of boats and petting the whales. Tourists see these posters, and they want to pet a whale for themselves. To pet a whale — or, as I saw in one case, to stick your grubby human fingers into its blowhole — you need to be close. Consequently, whales get rammed, cut off while swimming, and prevented even from diving. As one spy-hopped out of the water, a driver backed into it, engine still running.

Dr. Robin Baird, a cetacean expert with Cascadia Research Collective (a nonprofit scientific research and education organization), says that while these encounters are not likely to be having a serious effect on gray whale populations as a whole, since their numbers are thriving, human interactions like these do have an impact on individual whales.

Baird thinks that the effects of poorly controlled tourist trips include, “disrupting mother-calf bonds or nursing; displacing females into sub-optimal areas where they might be exposed to attacks by sharks or killer whales; and exposing females to unwanted male attention if they leave the safety of the bays. Calves could end up being compromised or with a lower body weight.”

Steve Jones, a media specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is known for its use of the law to protect endangered species, mentions another deleterious effect: “They are wild animals and we don’t want to socialize them. Whales should be wary of humans for their own safety. Learning that humans will feed or pet them interferes with natural behaviors that help them survive.” They can also be injured — it is not unusual for gray whales to bear propeller marks from collisions with boats.

Jones adds, “It’s also unsafe for humans to get too close to these powerful creatures. Last year a veteran whale entanglement rescuer was accidentally killed by a whale, demonstrating the danger. Our recommendation for travelers is to treat whales and other marine mammals with respect. That means admiring them from a distance.”

In Mexico, boats with a whale-watching permit must keep 100 feet from the whales. Amongst other rules, it is, “forbidden to cause the dispersion of a group or to interrupt its activities.” In López Mateos the rule book seemed to have been tossed overboard, along with any sense of restraint from the tour boat operators.  Government monitoring of the whale-watching boats in López Mateos, which is frequented by gray whales, isn’t as stringent as in the waters off Loreto Bay, where the endangered blue whales roam.

Francisco Gómez Díaz, director of the Whale and Marine Science Museum in La Paz, says that operators are not ignorant of the rules, they simply don’t accept them. He believes the solution lies with the authorities responsible for wildlife protection in Mexico, SEMARNAT and PROFEPA. He says, “They need to start giving training to tour operators again, and to let them know that if they don’t follow the rules, sanctions can include losing their permits,”, adding that the museum receives many complaints from tourists about poor practices when it comes to gray whales.

No one is suggesting that whale watching should not happen in Baja. It is a major source of income in the region, even though whales frequent these waters only three to four months a year.  It is to the community’s interest that the whales be treated well and not harassed. 

In fact, Baird is at pains to point out that well-regulated trips can benefit humans and wildlife alike. “You build a constituency of people who will vote for wildlife or make changes in their own lives to benefit wildlife. Allowing people to do it is a good thing under controlled circumstances.” His caveat is that it needs to be done with respect. “Limiting the numbers of people and boats, and ensuring that they minimize disturbance, is the key.” 

It would take relatively minor tweaks to transform the current López Mateos whale-watching circus into the positive experience that Baird envisages, that also supports the local economy. Two or three bigger boats, going out for shorter slots, and keeping 100 feet away, would still give tourists wonderful views that they would be happy to pay for.

Though there is room for improvement, Mexico has been working at earning some environmental credentials in recent years. Despite what the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development describes as a “challenging economic, demographic and social context,” the Commission for Natural Protected Areas has designated 14 percent of this biologically “mega-diverse” country as “natural protected areas.” Mexico has also seen a “trend of improvement in enforcement practices over the last decade,” according to Thomson Reuters.

Our experience with the blue whales shows that when the country gets it right, everybody benefits. In the meantime, tourists need to vote with their dollars and avoid operators who harass whales, in favor of responsible captains. That means that no one should get to stroke a whale. Everyone, including these remarkable animals, will be the better for it.

Helen Raine
Helen Raine is a writer and conservationist living in Kauai. She has an MSc in Conservation and has undertaken fieldwork in England, Malta, Peru, Zambia and Hawaii, often living for months in a tent. At present, she is helping Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project with their research work. As a freelance journalist, she focuses on the environment, but has also published hundreds of travel articles on adventure, as well as writing for Pink, a women’s magazine. She is the author of a series of wildlife guide books – Bermuda’s Top 10 and Malta’s Top 10 are already on sale, while Kauai’s Top 10; A Guide to the Island’s Wildlife is in production. Kauai has proved the perfect place for her and husband Andre to introduce island wildlife to their two kids, Callum and Maya.

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