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In search of the gray whale

March 04, 2002|By EDGAR FABIAN CHAVEZ, Adelante Valle Writer

ENSENADA, B.C. — Like a present from Mother Nature, thousands of gray whales crowd the bay around this Pacific Ocean port city to mate or give birth every winter.

The migratory route of these whales starts in Alaska and ends in an area off Ensenada, known as Islas de Todos los Santos.

In this place, thousands of whales are conceived and born from December through March of every year.

Visitors from throughout the world come to Islas de Todos los Santos to see the majestic sea creatures and their spectacular mating rituals, thanks to a whale-watching tour organized by the Museo de Ciencias de Ensenada (the Science Museum of Ensenada).

Esthela Parrilla, director of the museum, said every year some 15,000 gray whales make the pilgrimage to the bay.

"It's amazing how Mother Nature lets us be part of this big event. This is a nice way to coexist with the whales," she said.


With the arrival of the whales, the economy of Ensenada prospers because of thousands of tourists looking to witness the animals' conception and birth.


This sea mammal belongs to the species Eschrichtius robustus and the suborder Mysticeti, which refers to the bearded variety of baleen whales.

To feed, the whales utilize their beard as a sort of filtration device to scoop up millions of small crustaceans, plankton and mollusks, which make up the whales' principal diet.

The grays start their migratory journey from Alaska's Chukchi and Bering seas. The route takes the animals some 20,000 kilometers before stopping off the Baja California coast.

The gray whales' migratory route is the longest of all mammals.

The whales reach the ability to reproduce between ages 5 and 11.

Whales can reach 50 meters in length and the head is one-fifth the total size of their bodies. The weight of this sea mammal can reach 35 tons.


After the tourists aboard the science museum's whale-watching vessels are given a crash course in gray whale biology, a course is set for the mating zone.

The whale-watching tours, which the museum started about 13 years ago, take an hour and a half.

During the tour, guides give a history of the bay of Ensenada. Another guide explains how to identify the whales using the "clock system."

The time is clicking and the expectation grows when the ship is getting closer to the mating zone.

Before the ship arrives, dozens of sea lions and seals can be seen playing or resting at the island's rocks, caves and mountains.


"Whale at one, whale at one," is shouted by the guides.

Tourists instantly rush to prime whale-watching locations around the ship.

Parrilla said the majority of the adult whales either ignore or distance themselves from the ship, but the youngest whales often are curious, playful, friendly and easily visible.

After the whale expels air from its blowhole at the top of its body, it dives toward the ocean floor. That's when the whale-watchers can see part of the body slide beneath the water as well as the enormous tail.

The applause of the tourists roars as if they were watching a major stage show.


The whale-watching tours cost $17, or 150 pesos, for those under age 18. Most small children are admitted free. Fees for adults is $23 or 200 pesos.

The money collected goes to education activities and research at the museum, which is an independent cultural institution.

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