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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Whale of a time: Mother lifts up her calf to give tourists in Mexico a wave

By Emma Reynolds

Whale-watchers in Mexico were treated to an extraordinary close encounter with the mammals, as a 50-foot mother lifted up her baby calf to look at them in their boat.

As the majestic creature crested the wave in Laguna San Ignacio, a conservation area filled with the mammals, she gave her calf a boost so it could see what was going on.

U.S. tourists Greg and Barbara MacGillivray recorded incredible, anthropomorphic moment for posterity - showing just how friendly grey whales can be.

Scroll down for video

Making a splash: A grey whale lifts up her calf to greet the excited tourists

'It seemed like the mother wanted us to see her calf, actively pushing the calf close to our boat,' said Mrs MacGillivray.

Such interaction at the spot is not uncommon, according to One World, One Ocean, but is carefully regulated to protect the species.

The lagoon is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, and is the grey whale’s last undisturbed nursing and breeding ground.

Each winter, hundreds of grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate about 6,000 miles (10,000 km) from their Alaskan feeding grounds to the warm, shallow water of San Ignacio to give birth between January and April.

'There is a constant "oofft" of the exhalation from the blow holes of all the whales surfacing for air. Such a gentle reassurance that nature is alive and well in the lagoon: probably the softest, most gentle and nurturing sound in the world,' said Mrs MacGillivray.

Ocean adventure: The delighted whale-watchers gently pat the sea creature as it swims astonishingly close

Serge Dedina, the Executive Director of ocean conservation group WiLDCOAST and author of Saving the Gray Whale, said it was important to strike the right balance between conservation and tourism.

'There is no other area in the world where whale watching is more regulated than San Ignacio Lagoon,' he said. 'In spite of the tourist activities there are more whales than ever.'

If a whale approaches a panga (small fishing boat) seeking human interaction, no more than two boats are allowed in the immediate area.

Mr Dedina added: 'Local outfitters, the Mexican government and conservationists have worked to eliminate most of the major threats to the whales in the lagoon… Whale watching guides have been the biggest proponents of preserving whales along their migratory routes, and stopping planned hunts of whales. They’ve also supported a major endeavour to preserve 400,000 acres of the lagoon.'

Mrs MacGillivray said the group of tourists would always wait for the whales to approach them.

'We would never approach the whales directly, but waited at a respectful distance of about 20-30 feet of a visible whale and calf to see if they would approach us,' she said. 'The initiative was always in the whales’ court.'

Swim star: The mammals frequently interact with fishing boats in the carefully controlled conservation area

On their last day at the lagoon on Baja Peninsula, the couple had another moving encounter with a mother, who approached with her injured calf, who had a lobster trap line stuck in its mouth.

'It seemed to all of us that the mother wanted help and we all felt a profound sense of helplessness,' said Mrs MacGillivray.

Their guide contacted a scientist to help the calf, but its chance of survival with the lobster trap line in its mouth was slim.

Fortunately, the years of work activists have put into protecting the whales have helped to reduce entanglements like this. The MacGillivrays' guide, Jim, said he had seen such occurrences only three times in over a dozen seasons here.

Mr Dedina added: 'It’s important to remember that all the whale watching outfitters are local fishermen and that by having them involved in local whale watching, it’s taking pressure off of the fisheries inside and outside the Lagoon, which is beneficial to grey whales and other wildlife and fish species.'



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