Cabo – the Humpback Winter Hideaway

Every year, from November to April, humpback whales start to congregate around Baja, and Cabo San Lucas in particular. But why are they here? Read on and find out!

It’s whale watching season in Cabo! Every year, from November onwards, humpback whales start to gather around the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, and up to the Sea of Cortez. You can even spot them from the beach, while you’re lazing with friends! Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can choose to get up a little closer to them, on a humpback whale watching tour.  This will really let you appreciate their magnificent size and acrobatic abilities! Watching a huge 30+ ton whale breach out of the water, right in front of you is an experience never to be forgotten!

But, has it ever occurred to you to wonder why the whales are here at all? Where are they the rest of the time? What exactly are our humpback buddies up to?

Humpback whale spy hopping in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Humpback whale infographic.

North Pacific Humpbacks

Well, there are several distinct populations of humpbacks around the world, and they all undertake regular long distance migrations every year. Humpback whales feed on krill and small fish, which are abundant in very cold waters. However, these waters are not good places to give birth – newborn calves lack the layer of blubber that could keep them warm, and would not survive long in cold waters. So the whales have developed a lifestyle of travelling long distances from cold feeding areas, to warm shallow waters for calving and mating.

The humpback whales that take up residence in waters of Cabo are part of the North Pacific Humpbacks, and have their feeding grounds in the icy but productive waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea. When the winter nights start closing in, they start the long migration to their wintering grounds in either Hawaii, or Baja California (nice to know humpbacks like to spend their winter break at holiday destinations too!)

Cabo – Humpback Nursery

It can take about 40 days for the humpbacks to make it down to Cabo, following coastal features all the way down south. The special environment around Cabo, with wide shallow warm bays, and easy access to deep water makes it an ideal nursery.  Humpback females come to these warm waters to give birth, nurse their young, and then breed again. These whales reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 10 years, with females produce a single calf, on average every 2 to 3 years.  

After an 11 month pregnancy, the 1 ton calves are born right here in the waters around Cabo!  Newborns measure between 13 to 16 feet in length. Nursing calves stay really close to their mom for up to one year before weaning. Mothers are protective of and affectionate toward their calves, swimming close and reassuring them by nuzzling and touching fins.

Humpback whale watching in Cabo San Lucas , Mexico

Male Displays

But it’s not all about the ladies! Male humpbacks also undertake the long migration to Cabo.  And they are here to find mates and breed! Males exhibit competitive behavior around females and often strike or surface on top of one another.  A humpback male determined to impress the girls will display all sorts of surface behaviour to attract attention – from pec slaps, chin slaps, tail throws, tail slaps, and the epic breach! For the lucky watcher with an active male, these make the most amazing spectacles!

Whale Watching Mecca

With males and females and baby whales all to be found around Cabo, this makes it an awesome destination for whale watchers! Amazing behaviour and interactions can be seen! The sweetest ones are those lucky enough to spot a mother and calf.  Mom and baby share an incredible bond, and baby learns everything from mom. You may even be lucky enough to see mom teaching baby to breach! This is probably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, with baby messing up the first couple of attempts, before finally getting it right, and then breaching non stop! It’s also the one time you can really see and appreciate the size difference between an adult and calf, as they both breach one after another. Breathtaking!

Sometimes the mother and calf is accompanied by another whale, which we call the escort. Scientists don’t really know why the escort accompanies the mom and baby – it could be the escort is protecting the newborn, or that there may be some biological link (dad duty?).  Alternatively, they may be keeping close in hope that the mother may be ready to breed soon. Still, seeing a little baby calf accompanied by two massive adults is pretty cool!

Breaching humpback whale in Los Cabos, Mexico
Sunset whale watching tour in Los Cabos, Mexico

Courtship Rituals

It’s not all about the babies though! Cabo is, after all the breeding grounds for these whales, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to witness the full gamut of humpback courtship rituals!  The most exciting of these is definitely the heat run, where a group of males start chasing after a female, competing for the right to breed with her. The males will lunge at each other and try to dominate, determined to outlast all to get the girl.

A more gentler side can be seen with a courting couple, where a male and female whale are pretty much out on a date – having fun, getting to know each other, and yes, still trying to impress each other! Lots of breaches and pec slaps and tail lobs to show off how cool they are!  Hopefully there’ll be more babies on the way soon!

The displays and behaviors of the humpback whale in their wintering grounds around Cabo is definitely an experience not to be missed! And it’s all the more amazing when you realise that the whales are not feeding while they are in the nursery and breeding areas. They are sustaining themselves purely from their blubber stores, while enjoying the warm waters of Cabo. However, after fun in the winter sun, and checking out the spring breakers, it will soon be time for the whales to head back up to their feeding grounds in Alaska, new babies in tow.

Intrigued by the humpbacks? Inspired to see them in real life? Join Dive Ninjas on one of our eco friendly whale watching tours!  

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Ninja Family Guest Writer:

Sze Wei

Lover of all marine animals big and small – and ok, yes, I like diving a lot!  When not underwater, I can be found in London with my goldfish.
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