When an enormous whale, and her gigantic calf, are nudging the frail boat you’re in, is it time to panic? Should you just relax and enjoy a unique wildlife encounter? Or could the whales overturn your little boat, leaving you flailing about in the freezing sea, gasping for breath? To find out the answer, read on.
In the search for new experiences, tourists and tour operators continue to push the boundaries. Some of the most popular and unique experiences are close encounters with animals in the wild, whether they are in tropical jungles, the African savannah or the deep blue oceans.
When it comes to the oceans, an increasingly sought-after experience is to get up close to whales. Not content just to observe whales from the coastline, many people take to the sea to have intimate contact with these leviathans of the deep.
However, getting close to sea mammals such as the gray whale, which can weigh up to 40 tons and grow to a length of 50 feet, obviously does have its risks. Speaking to The Guardian, Australian conservation scientist Dr. Wally Franklin explained, “There’s a high risk involved particularly when you are dealing with young whales, which are still learning to be whales.”
Dr. Franklin, who is an expert on humpback whales, goes on to say, “The other risk factor is that sharks do follow humpback whales, and look at the incidence of shark attacks that are occurring on the east coast of Australia. I wouldn’t get in the water with them under any circumstances.”
In fact recorded instances of problems on whale-watching boat trips tend to report incidents where a whale, probably unintentionally, crashes into the whale-watchers’ boat. One heartbreaking example of just such an incident was a terrible accident in 2015, in the waters of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico.
Jen Karren, a 35-year-old Canadian woman from Calgary, was aboard a tourist boat when a gray whale surged out of the water and landed atop the small craft. The injuries she sustained in the crash proved to be fatal. WWF Canada’s Tonya Wimmer told Global News, “One of the biggest things is…things can happen. It’s not that the animals are doing anything on purpose. There can be a little bit of unpredictability.”
In another disturbing incident in 2013, in British Columbia, Canada, a humpback whale smashed into Raymond Boyd’s boat near Kelsey Bay. A whale breached ahead of Boyd and the subsequent impact threw him through the boat’s windshield, resulting in severe facial injuries. Fortunately, after plastic surgery, Boyd recovered.
And there have been other incidents. In 2014, a blue whale overturned a whale-watching boat off the coast of San Diego, California. Two people were thrown into the water, but luckily suffered only bruises. One of them, Dale Frink, is seen here just before the boat was tipped over.
One place that tourists flock to in search of close wildlife encounters on the sea is the San Ignacio Lagoon, just off the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California Sur state. It’s a very special place for marine wildlife, which is reflected in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Perhaps the most compelling of the wildlife sights that San Ignacio Lagoon offers are the pods of eastern North Pacific gray whales that visit each year. They spend the winter in these waters, attracted by their relative warmth. And they present whale-watching opportunities that are probably unmatched by any other location in the world.
This eastern population of gray whales spends the summer in the nutrient-rich waters between Russia and Alaska. In the winter the whales migrate en masse southwards along the Pacific coasts of the U.S. and Mexico, where they breed and give birth. The protected waters of the San Ignacio Gulf make an ideal nursery, away from predators.
In fact, in days gone by, we humans had a markedly different attitude towards gray whales than the generally benevolent feelings we have towards them now. In the 19th century, gray whales were known as “devil fish” and were greatly feared by fishermen.
Actually, it was whalers who had the most to fear. When they harpooned gray whale calves, their enraged mothers would attack, and many small whaling boats were destroyed in this way. In the mid-19th century, some 8,000 gray whales were killed. Even the safe haven of San Ignacio was violated from 1859 onwards, when Captain Charles Scammon’s whaling fleet virtually wiped out the population of gray whales.
But today, thankfully, eastern gray whales have made a good recovery from the depredations of whaling, and their conservation status is of “least concern.” Now, the fishermen of San Ignacio Lagoon regard the population of these magnificent animals as something that they have a duty to protect. And during the summer months, many fishermen become whale-watching guides.
One particular whale-watching trip at San Ignacio Lagoon, in March 2012, showed just how close to gray whales it’s possible to get – and how potentially scary it can be. And it can look especially perilous when the whale-watchers are out on the ocean in small boats. In fact, many of the whale-watching boats are smaller than the whales themselves.
In the video that was made of this particular encounter, we see a woman at the side of the boat. In fact, in what looks like a dangerously risky move, the woman leans way out over the edge of the boat, with her balance just keeping her aboard the craft.
Incredibly, a gray whale comes to meet the woman’s outstretched hand, apparently in a gesture of greeting. And what is more, the whale is a female with a calf, and positioning herself under the calf, she lifts the youngster towards the woman’s hand.
By now squealing with excitement, the woman is able to pet the gray whale calf as she leans precariously out of the boat, joined by several of her fellow whale-watching passengers. With most of the passengers all leaning over one side of the boat, you have to wonder if capsizing might be a possibility.
But in fact, all ends well, and this lucky group of whale watchers have had an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. And it’s an incredible thought that these whales are the descendants of those that were callously slaughtered in the not-so-distant past. Now, the gray whales of San Ignacio couldn’t be more friendly.