The Friendly Grey Whales of Baja – a Brief History

Hanging out with grey whales in Bahia Magdalena is justifiably one of the most amazing close encounters with ocean giants you can get! These super-friendly giants actively seek and enjoy human interaction! But how did this all start? Let’s find out more about the backstory of these fascinating whales.

The Real BFG (Big Friendly Giants)

There we were, up bright and early, bobbing along in a little boat on the super smooth lagoon at a tiny fishing village in Bahia Magdalena (Mag Bay). My buddies and I were on Dive Ninja’s Gentle Giant’s Expedition, and we were on the lookout for grey whales. And then… there it was – a blow! And… a tiny blow right next to it! We stopped the boat a little bit away from the mom and calf and then had the most incredible interaction! The calf was super friendly, blowing bubbles, rolling around, lifting his head out of the water, and taking a good look at his new buddies. He eventually felt confident enough to come up right next to the boat and popped his head out of the water just inches from us! I put my hands in the water, and he came up from underneath the surface, looked at me, then gently rubbed his nose against my hand. Then returned to do it again! Such a remarkable close encounter with a young grey whale calf, with mom watching calmly nearby – are the wildlife encounters that dreams are made of!

Juvenile grey whale surfaces while whale watching in Bahia Magdalena , Baja California Sur, Mexico
Calf riding on mothers back, during a grey whale tour in Baja California Mexico

The Friendly Giants of Mag Bay

Bahia Magdalena is justifiably famous in the whale-watching world as the home of the friendliest whales. Grey whales swim right up to the boat, poking their heads from the water only inches away as if to say hello. Mothers push their young calves to the surface, wanting to introduce us to them. Mag Bay is home to one of the largest grey whale aggregations on the planet, and a whale-watching hotspot.

But why are they here? And how did they get so friendly? I think given our chequered history with whales, understanding the past makes these encounters extra special, and helps us appreciate our whale friends even more. So let’s take a walk back in time to look at the history of grey whales in this area.

Whale Nursery, and Hunting Ground

Grey whales undertake some of the longest migrations among mammals. Look at the map on the right, where Journey North of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum plots their traditional migration route – grey whales swim up to 14,000 miles each year! This epic journey takes them from their feeding grounds up in the Arctic, in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, to the much warmer waters of the Baja peninsula of Mexico. They make this epic journey as the sheltered lagoons around Mag Bay are their traditional nursery grounds, where they mate and give birth, before heading back to their feeding grounds in the spring. As many as 20,000 grey whales make this journey every year. 

During the whaling era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, humans took full advantage of this, and grey whales were hunted for their oil until the point of near extinction. 

Grey whale migrations - join Dive Ninjas to check them out in their breeding grounds in Mag Bay!
Harpooned grey whales fight back against whales in Baja

Devil Fish

It’s only natural to have great respect for grey whales, as they fought back against the whalers! They developed a reputation for being extremely aggressive. When whalers harpooned their calves, the mothers would turn on the whale boats and smash them to pieces. In Baja, the Mexican whalers named them “Devil Fish,” and the whales destroyed a lot of boats.

After commercial whaling was finally banned in Mexico in 1947, grey whale numbers began to bounce back. But they were not welcomed by the local fisherman! Their fierce reputation lived on, and the locals in their small boats, greatly feared them. They even had a piece of wood to bang on their boats to scare the whales away. Suffice to say, they did not want Devil Fish anywhere near their fishing grounds.

The Peace Treaty

Then on a magical day in 1972, all that changed. Don Pachico Mayoral, a local fisherman, was fishing on his little boat with a friend, when an enormous grey whale approached them. Frightened, Pachico tried to get away, but each time he changed the boat’s direction, the whale followed. The men feared the worse – the whale was going to attack! But then, amazingly, the whale came gently up to the boat, rubbed itself against it, and raised its head out of the water right next to Pachico. Pachico nervously touched the whale, and it moved even closer, encouraging the contact. As he kept petting the whale, the years of fear receded. Locals see this as the moment when peace was made between the local community and the whales.

Grey whale watching in Mag Bay with Dive Ninjas

Community Whale Love

This encounter changed the attitude of both whales and the local fishing community.  In a unique whale culture, many mothers now teach their calves to interact with people.  Youngsters are actually pushed towards small boats, and even lifted by their mothers to the surface.  It’s as if the mothers are introducing their calves to their mammal cousins! And to think that these are the descendants of grey whales that have survived the horrors of a truly bloody whaling era, is all the more astonishing.  These gentle giants appear to have truly forgiven and forgotten. And the local fisherman, in a total reversal of their old attitudes, take their role of protector of the whale nursery seriously. Whale watching and whale tourism is very carefully regulated by the local community, with guidelines in place to ensure that the encounters are always on the terms of the whales.

Truly Unique

The well being of the whales is now critical to the well being of the fishing community. This is truly sustainable ecotourism, with the whale benefitting from the additional protection, scrutiny and oversight. The fishing community now understands that the well being of the whales is critical to them. And the whales somehow understand this as well – when they depart from the lagoons of Mag Bay, they also leave their “friendly” behaviour behind. They are not known to approach any boat outside of the lagoon. No one knows why! The Peace Treaty, and the relationship between the grey whales and the local community in Mag Bay, is truly unique, and definitely one of the top animal encounters in the world!

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