Petting a friendly gray whale in Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico

The Story of Friendly Gray Whales

Who’s Watching Whom?


By Melanie Lamaga 

January through early April is the height of the whale-watching season in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California. During this time, Pacific gray whales mate and give birth in the shallow coastal waters. And there's something unique about these whales: they exhibit a behavior seldom seen among wild animals, actively seeking interaction with humans. Mothers nudge their babies toward boatloads of tourists, and allow them to stroke their heads, tongues and baleen. Juvenile whales frolic around boats, diving, surfacing and sometimes splashing people with water scooped from their tails. This is the magic of friendly gray whales.

It wasn't always like this, though. Pacific gray whales were hunted nearly to extinction before the International Whaling Commission enacted a ban in 1946. During the killing years these whales were known as “devil-fish,” because of their fierce attacks on whaling boats. How strange, then, that these same animals, less than 30 years later should choose to behave in a gentle and friendly way toward their former predators. They even trust us enough to let us touch their babies

The first, known, friendly whale encounter occurred in 1972, according to Doug Thompson, author of Whales, Touching the Mystery. A resident of San Ignacio Lagoon, Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral, took his panga out to fish in the lagoon. Knowing the gray whales’ reputation for ferocity, Pachico, like other locals, took care to give them plenty of space. On this day, however, a whale approached Pachico’s boat. Frightened, he moved away, but the whale followed. Finally, Pachico gave in, knowing there was no way to escape, and that if the whale wanted to, it could smash his small boat with one flip of its massive tail. But that’s not what happened. Instead the whale gently surfaced, poking its head up, right next to Pachico’s boat. Clearly, the whale wanted to interact with him.

That night Pachico told his friends and family what had happened. They were skeptical, but Pachico convinced some of them to go out on the lagoon with him. Soon he and others experienced more friendly encounters. Over the years the news has spread. Gray whale watching became a bucket-list trip for many people, and San Ignacio Lagoon has become known the world over for having the friendliest whales. 

So, this is the mystery about gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. When other wild animals seek out humans, it’s usually for food. However, the only food these whales eat is found on the ocean’s bottom, thousands of miles away in The Bering Sea. According to Cedros Outdoor Adventures owner Jose Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist and former whale researcher, there is only one explanation for the whales’ behavior: these intelligent beings are as curious about us as we are about them. 

A version of this article first appeared in Baja Lifestyle Magazine, 2009