Human Interest

Gray whales have an audience once again in salt lagoons of northwest Mexico

By Mahatma Fong

Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos, Mexico, Mar 11 (EFE).- Gray whale watching, a traditional tourist activity in the salt lagoons of the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California Sur, was dealt a major blow by the coronavirus pandemic but has been making a strong comeback in recent weeks and is helping support the local economy.

One of the visitors this year is Arturo Villegas, a Mexican-born resident of Los Angeles who journeys south annually to see that playful and trusting cetacean,

The experience is “really cool,” he told Efe. “Just now we went a distance of almost five kilometers with a whale and its calf who were coming up to us the whole time.”

Carlos Rodriguez, a young Mexican man from the resort city of La Paz, Baja California Sur, was similarly excited about his whale-watching excursion.

“The whale came up so close to the boat that you could practically touch her. It was never necessary to approach her. It seemed like she loved to play with the boats,” he said of the interaction with that giant mammal, which can grow to around 15 meters (49 feet) in length and weigh up to 40 tons (90,000 pounds).

The watching season for the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) kicked off last December in the sanctuaries of Mexico’s northwestern Pacific waters, specifically in breeding and calving lagoons of Baja California Sur where they typically stay until late April.

The latest season started slowly, with the health emergency and measures taken to mitigate its impact still affecting tourism. But visitor numbers have surged to pre-pandemic levels in recent weeks.

Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos alone – whose lagoon is one of the region’s most important whale sanctuaries – welcomes an average of 60,000 tourists each year, and those visitors spend roughly $100 per person.

Francisco Aragon, a fisherman who is a native of that resort town, has lived on the Pacific coast his entire life. During whale season, he takes hundreds of domestic and foreign tourists for close encounters with those cetaceans, which are known for the gray patches and white mottling on their dark skin.

Aragon, affectionately known as Panchito, confirmed the spike in tourism numbers in recent weeks and said the sector is committed to heeding coronavirus protocols and safeguarding tourists’ health.

“It’s very important for tourists to come. Fish are very scarce at the moment, and this whale activity is a way to support our families and pay for our children’s schooling,” he added.

The gray whales’ migratory route is one of the longest carried out by any mammal on Earth.

When the northern ice pushes southward in October, near-term pregnant females start the 8,000-kilometer (4,970-mile) trip from the frigid waters of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea to the warm-water lagoons of Baja California Sur to calve and breed.

Other gray whales then follow suit a couple of weeks later.

According to figures from Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, a total of 872 adult whales were registered and 359 whale calves were born during the previous season in the whale sanctuaries of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve (the Guerrero Negro and Ojo de Liebre salt lagoons).

In the first months after their arrival, and after most of the calves have been born, these mammals engage in so-called “friendly whale behavior” to the delight of tourists.

The gray whale has legal protection under a moratorium established in the mid-20th century through the International Whaling Commission, of which Mexico is a member state.

Excursions to observe gray, blue and humpback whales in the wild today is one of the leading eco-tourism activities along Mexico’s Pacific coast. EFE


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