by Kathy Kranking
There's one place in the world where buddying up to a whale is easier than you might think!
You would never expect a wild animal to come up to you to be petted. But that’s exactly what might happen if you go to Mexico to see some special gray whales. Locals call them “the friendlies.” And they sure live up to their name. The whales are famous for the way they seem to really like humans. When they see boats, they often swim over. And if the people inside are lucky, the whales will come close enough to get patted, rubbed, or even kissed!
You can’t go just anywhere to “friend” a whale. The friendlies are found in certain lagoons along the coast of Baja (BAH-hah) California, Mexico, during late winter and early spring (see map). They migrate there from Alaska so they can have their babies in warmer waters.
While in the lagoons, the whales are a hit with humans. And the humans seem to be a hit with the whales, as well. When a boat full of people heads out into one of the lagoons, the whales often come swimming over. They might even "spyhop”—poke their heads out of the water to look at their visitors. And though it’s not guaranteed, the whales may then swim close enough to let people reach out to pet them. Mother whales sometimes nudge their babies over so they can be petted, too!
Gray whales and people didn’t always have such a good relationship. For years, people hunted the whales. Because the whales fought back so fiercely, they were known as “devil fish”—though, of course, they aren’t fish at all. But the whales were no match for the whalers’ weapons. Soon there were only a few hundred left. Later, it became illegal to hunt whales, and the population began to grow again.
A NEW BEGINNING
Then, about 40 years ago, two fishermen got a surprise. They were fishing in a boat in one of the lagoons where gray whales were. They were trying to stay away from the whales because of their dangerous reputation. Suddenly, one of the whales swam right toward the boat! It poked its head out of the water to look at the fishermen. Then it spent the next hour rubbing gently against the boat’s side.
A few years later, people aboard a whale-watching boat were able to pet a young gray whale that had swum up to them. Word began to spread about the friendly gray whales, and soon they became famous. Why are these whales so friendly to people? Whales are very intelligent, and they may come close because they’re curious. Perhaps they simply enjoy being patted and rubbed. Or maybe, as some people believe, the whales just like us.
Only the whales know for sure—and they're not talking!
"How to Make Friends with a Whale" appeared in the February 2016 issue of Ranger Rick. Click here for a closer view of the photos.