A most astonishing recovery

A downward facing arrow

Photo by Venti Views on Unsplash

1937 truly marked a low point for eastern North Pacific gray whales, whose numbers may have fallen to as few as one thousand individuals. Yet over the following decades, the population made an astonishing recovery.

Project investigator Jason Colby reaching out to touch a friendly whale in Baja California

Dr. Jason Colby reaches out to touch a "friendly" gray whale approaching his panga in San Ignacio Lagoon, February 2022.

Protection from industrial whaling made all the difference. Despite expanding commercial fishing, tanker traffic, military development, and oil drilling on the Pacific Coast, gray whale numbers grew rapidly in the decades following World War II.

It was a recovery made possible by both international co-operation and natural resilience. Like a hemispheric metronome, gray whales followed their timeworn paths north and south along the Pacific Coast, capturing the attention and imagination of scientists and coastal residents alike.

At Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, biologist Carl Hubbs and his students pioneered efforts to quantify and track the population's recovery with shore-based surveys. At the same time, celebrities such as Errol Flynn and Jacques Cousteau filmed gray whales in their lagoons, bringing their images to millions worldwide, and stoking a deep popular fascination with the prehistoric-looking mammals.

A colour photograph of J.J., a gray whale held in captivity at San Diego's Sea World

J.J., a newborn female gray whale rescued from stranding on the beach at Marina Del Rey, California, was transported to San Diego's Sea World for rehabilitation in 1997. Over 14 months of captivity, thousands of Sea World visitors embrace the opportunity to view a captive gray whale up close. J.J. is released off Point Loma, California in 1998. Jim McBain, 1998.

By the late 1960s, sightseers had started to frequent locations such as Point Loma to observe the gray whale migration, while off-season commercial fishers began to experiment with the nation's first "whale-watching" cruises in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Captivity played an important role in fostering public admiration for the species. In a historic first, Sea World staff captured a young gray whale, affectionately nicknamed "Gigi," in March 1971. Held in a 200,000 liter tank at the marine park for one year as she grew to nearly full size, Gigi gave scientists and members of the public their first opportunity to observe a live baleen whale up close. Twenty years later, a newborn female gray whale dubbed "J.J." was rescued from heavy surf in Marina Del Rey, California and transported to Sea World in San Diego. Like Gigi, J.J. was kept in captivity for over a year, before being released off Point Loma.

Meanwhile, the environmental culture of the Pacific Coast was changing rapidly. In the wake of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the nation's first Earth Day the following year, the US government passed a flurry of environmental legislation, including the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

French filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited northern Magdalena Bay and the sandy lagoons of Estero Santo Domingo in December 1967 to film this episode of "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" entitled "The Desert Whales."

Gray whales themselves helped reinforce this shift in human attitudes toward the sea and its creatures. In 1974, the first reports of "friendly whales" in Baja appeared. In sheltered San Ignacio Lagoon, local fisher Don Pachico Mayoral was approached by a gray whale, who allowed him to reach out and touch its head. Over the following years, others embraced similar experiences. It was an astonishing change from the species still referred to by some as the "devilfish." The stunning behavior drove new initiatives in marine mammal science and ecotourism. In the late 1990s, it helped convince the Mexican government to cancel construction of an industrial salt production facility in San Ignacio Lagoon that threatened the habitat of these remarkable creatures who had just reached across the interspecies divide. Like the humans who had hunted, studied, and watched them, gray whales had also made history. In the process, they helped lay a path for coexistence on the Pacific Coast.