Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja California

A downward facing arrow

Credit: José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez, "Ballena gris adulta con su ballenato"

An immense, dark, barnacle-encrusted head surfaces beside a small boat drifting in a sheltered inland lagoon. Buoyed by the hypersaline water, a smaller shape rises beside the first, casting spray over the gunwales and onto the faces and hair of the rapt onlookers as it takes a breath of the warm desert air.

The boat, a small craft known locally as a panga, is filled with tourists who have travelled from around the world for the chance to see an eastern North Pacific gray whale. Yet their journeys pale in comparison to that of the cetacean traveller they now reach out to touch.

An image of a gray whale feeding, with a mud plume extending behind its tail.

Feeding gray whales expel sediment through their baleen, leaving behind characteristic mud plumes. Credit: Mark Carwardine.

The odyssey of this gray whale mother began in the icy northern waters of the Chukchi Sea three months earlier. She had spent the summer months following the retreating sea ice northward and diving deep to the ocean floor. There, she scooped trenches in the sand and grit, using her short, cream-colored baleen to filter out tons of tiny amphipods and mysid shrimp, channeling critical nutrients to her gestating calf.

In late autumn, as the sea ice expanded southward from the Arctic Ocean, this expectant mother joined more than twenty thousand fellow gray whales in the longest migration of any marine mammal. Swimming constantly, she worked her way south through the Bering Sea and east along the jagged coastline and innumerable islets of the Aleutians. She skirted the Gulf of Alaska, passing immense glaciers and dense, ancient forests, following the coastline south through misty Haida Gwaii and along the storm-tossed west coast of Vancouver Island. One hundred and fifty years earlier, her relatives may have fallen prey to Nuu-chah-nulth or Makah hunters - famed seagoing peoples whose prowess as whalers helped define their identities.

Illustration of Makah whalers hunting a gray whale

Makah whalers hunting off Cape Flattery, Washington State. H.W. Elliott, in George Brown Goode, "The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States," 1:5 (1887): 62

Our gray whale, however, saw only fishing boats, cargo ships, and research vessels. She fluked her way south along the beaches and headlands of Washington, Oregon, and California, dodging fishing nets and tanker traffic, making her way past the vast legs of looming offshore oil rigs and under noisy whale watching boats. After this long and arduous trek, she finally reached the warm waters off the west coast of Baja. Her destination was an immense expanse of inland water known to locals as Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or "Eye of the Jackrabbit Lagoon." Here, she fulfilled nature's imperative, giving birth to a calf undisturbed. One hundred and sixty years earlier, however, she would not have enjoyed such tranquility for long.