Life in the Nursery Lagoons

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What's it like at the southern end of the gray whale migration route? Gray whales begin arriving in the warm, salty lagoons of Mexico's Baja California coast each December. These quiet, shallower waters are a safe haven — normally free from predatory killer whales.

Tour guide Kristin "Ellie" Kusic describes one of the lagoons — Laguna San Ignacio — from aboard a whale watch tour boat with excited tourists who came to see the whales. Close your eyes and picture this:

Mothers and Babies

"A mother gray whale spyhops a few feet from the boat. Her baby frolics nearby. The calf rolls along her mother's back as the huge whale surfaces to breathe. Both take one more breath, arch their backs, and slowly disappear into the water. A few minutes pass as we wait for the whales to return to the surface. The calf comes up first, and we see bright orange whale lice encircling her blowhole. The mother surfaces soon after, takes a breath, and turns towards the boat. Reaching hands are now gently touching the mother whale. The calf seems to have permission to come up to the boat, playfully lifting her head out of the water so that we can touch her skin. No one truly understands why these whale-human interactions occur. Is the mother teaching her calf about boats and humans? Or are we a way to entertain a curious young whale?

Playing to Learn

"By March, many of the mom-and-calf pairs have retreated to the shallow areas of the lagoon. It is too dangerous for the calves to be around the overzealous adult males, whose minds are on courting and breeding. As the babies continue to grow, we see more adult behavior, just as expected. When an adult whale breaches, 3/4 of its body crashes down with a huge splash. As I watched an adult whale breaching, a baby whale tried out her breaching skills. It is hard not to giggle as the small whale jumps out of the water and comes down with a wimpy splash. By the baby whale's sixth breach, we see her turn 90 degrees before she splashes back into the water. She's catching on!
Newborn Whale
Photo Linda Lewis

"The baby whales seem more playful every day. Maybe because they're larger, the mothers allow them to come closer to the boats. The young whales spy-hop and lounge near our boat and I wonder what they are thinking as they peer into the panga (Mexican fishing boat) filled with people. Sometimes the mom and baby push the boat. They may even raise the boat out of the water by pushing it up from below. The babies sometime disappear below their mothers, possibly to nurse, although milk is never seen in the water. (Whale milk is thick and rich so it sticks to the baby's baleen. This helps ensure that every bit of nutrition goes into the calf.) Like children everywhere, the baby whales stay close to their mothers. A calf often rolls along the mom's back as she surfaces for air, or rests on its mom's back."

The Local People Look After the Whales!
Gray Whale Nursery Lagoons
Photo Caroline Armon

"San Ignacio Lagoon has long been a safe place for mother whales and their calves," says Kristen. "One area (1/4) of the lagoon is set aside for whale watching, while the rest (3/4) of the lagoon is for the whales only, off-limits to boats. Approximately 120 families live in several small fishing villages around the lagoon and make their living there. They spend part of the year catching fish and lobsters and the other part taking tourists whale watching. Kuyima Ecotourismo is the organization of local people who make the decisions about whale watching. Laws limit the number of boats and the amount of time boats can spend on the water. San Ignacio Lagoon is a great example of how people can live sustainably within their environment.

Try This! Journaling Questions
  • What makes the lagoons such good nurseries for newborn whales? Give two or more reasons.
  • Why do the mothers like to keep the calves away from the males?
  • Why do you think the whales in the lagoon choose to interact with the humans?

National Science Education Standards

  • Organisms have basic needs. They can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met.
  • Plants and animals have life cycles that include being born, developing into adults, reproducing, and eventually dying.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).