Curious about the humpback whales of Cabo? Learn more about the recent history of these whales, how human activities have impacted them, and what you can do to help!
Being out on a boat, bobbing in the middle of the ocean, on a humpback whale watching expedition in Cabo San Lucas in a truly incredible experience. You scan the horizon, with a huge expanse of aquamarine water and blue skies in front of you… and then you hear the distinctive “pfff” of an exhaling whale! You whip-round, just in time to see a 30 ton whale propel itself out of the water, almost performing a backflip as it breaches out of the ocean, as you laugh and scream at the sheer joy and exhilaration of it all!
The waters of Cabo San Lucas is a real hotspot for humpback whales. They use the area as their wintering grounds, and during the whale watching season (15 Dec to 15 April annually), you don’t have to spend much time on the water at all before spotting some whale blows! And this special annual aggregation of whales is all the more amazing given that just a couple of decades ago, humpback whales (and whales in general) were at the brink of population collapse.
Humpbacks as an Industrial Resource
Nowadays, we view humpbacks as amazing, charismatic, intelligent animals, with a vital role to play in the ocean ecosystem. However, back in the 20th century, things were rather different. Whales were sought after, not as a source of joy and inspiration, but for whale oil, which was used as fuel and lubrication. Whale oil was used everywhere, in all sorts of everyday products, from lamp oil to soap, and even margarine (not a vegetarian product back then!). Whale oil helped power a rapidly industrializing landscape, but there was a sad price to pay.
In the 18th century, the global population of whales was in the millions. But with the demands of industry, commercial whaling started. Mechanized factory whaling boats were super efficient, and allowed the mass slaughter of whales. The slow swimming humpbacks were among the whale species targeted by whalers.
Save the Whales
Over the course of the 20th century, over 2.4 million whales were taken, reducing the global population by over 90%. North Pacific humpback kills (which includes our whale population in Cabo) alone are estimated at 28,000. Without any effort at sustainable whaling or resource management, even the whalers realized they were starting to run out of prey. In the 1940s, limits and quotas were put into place, but this did not stop the freefall of whale numbers.
In the 1960s, the public started to wake up to this impending disaster. At the same time, we started falling in love with our big cetacean cousins, as they started to appear in television series and feature in popular culture. Conservation groups started forming to Save the Whales.
In 1986, finally responding to public pressure and scientific data, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling because of the extreme depletion of most whale stocks. Three countries exempted themselves from the moratorium and continue to hunt whales – Japan, Norway and Iceland.
New Millennium, New Hope
Now protected, humpback populations are recovering and have grown to nearly 54,000 worldwide— about 45 percent of their original numbers (estimates put the population at up to 125,000 humpbacks, prior to commercial whaling). A recent population estimate of the North Pacific population (our Cabo whales!) is slightly over 18,000 individuals. A dramatic increase! And definitely proof that we humans can learn from our mistakes and make amends!
However, the population is still considerably smaller than pre-whaling estimates. And as we humans continue to exploit and manipulate natural resources for our own benefit, we are yet again putting humpbacks at risk. Issues such as ocean pollution, microplastics, entanglement with fishing gear and declining fish stocks – these all put population recovery at risk. And heartbreakingly, commercial whaling still occurs.
There’s Still So Much To Do
But here’s the good news! We can all do our part to help Save the Whales, including our friendly local acrobatic humpbacks! Adopting a zero waste philosophy and prioritizing sustainability will help stem the stream of plastics and pollutants seeping into our oceans, and into the whales. Plastic is not whale food, and causes serious damage to their gastro intestinal tract. Chemical pollutants make their way into whales through the food chain, and slowly poison them, with growing calves and juveniles particularly susceptible. How we choose to live, and the sustainable decisions we make everyday, can make a huge difference! Interested in knowing more? Groups such as Zero Waste Los Cabos and Saving Los Cabos will be happy to start pointing you in the right direction!
Organizations such as Sea Shepherd and the WWF continue to put pressure on whaling nations to end their activities. Showing support for these organizations and their campaigns helps ensure that anti-whaling and whale protection remains high on the agenda, and demonstrate that whaling is simply no longer acceptable in this day and age.
Citizen Science to the Rescue!
And of course, going on an ecologically responsible whale watching tour benefits and help protect humpbacks, in ways that you may not have even thought of! Economically, whale watching provides a sustainable, long term income for coastal communities and local tourism – which then provides a huge incentive to ensure that the humpback population is protected. A whale is worth much more alive than dead! When whale watching trips generate significant revenue and provide an economic boost, governments start paying more attention.
On a more personal level, whale watching gives people the chance to meet, and fall in love with these beautiful creatures. We protect what we love, and we love what we know. Once you’ve spent time watching humpbacks interacting in their natural environment, you can’t help but start to develop a sense of responsibility to protect them. For the intrepid photographer, whale watching also offers them a chance to contribute to conservation, and data gathering for real ongoing research, by submitting their whale pictures to organizations such as Happy Whale. These organizations rely on contributions from citizen scientists to help monitor and track the health of humpback whale populations.
Humpbacks need us to protect them, and we need to learn from the past and the mistakes that were made. It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that humpbacks continue to inspire and awe us for generations to come!