Friendly Whales
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Meet Grace, the Very First Friendly Gray Whale!



It all began one day in 1977 when an awesome and totally unexpected incident occurred! It was first terrifying, and quickly became delightful beyond words!  A gray whale came over to my whale-watching Zodiac, touched our small boat gently, and allowed itself to be petted by us all. It even reached out with its rostrum ("nose") to touch our outstretched hands. Fran began to sing Amazing Grace. The happy whale stayed for two hours! Everyone sang. Her name is Grace, of course. She was a teenage female, and blew bubbles beneath our small gray Zodiac inflatable, an activity long observed between mother and calf, and considered to be playful and friendly. And that was the beginning...

Grace left. And returned often over many years. And others came. A few at first, then more joined in as the years passed. Mothers brought baby whales to share this experience. Now, increasing numbers of wild gray whales are "friendly," and human visitors seek this opportunity to celebrate this experience themselves.

To say that a friendly whale encounter is enjoyable or meaningful is to fail to seek out the best words. But words really do fail here. Eloquent people have resorted to silent smiles and wide, wide eyes that communicate more than the "Ohhh!" or "Wow!" so often heard when a whale touches one's hand. I have seen distracted photographers set their film-exhausted cameras onto hard, wet skiff bottoms in order to devote both hands and mind to the delightful passion of responding to the whale's presence. With time for reflection, people have compared the emotional impact of this first encounter with a friendly whale with that of making love. I can relate the experience to witnessing a very long total solar eclipse for the first time. Astonishing! And never to be forgotten.

The whales obviously enjoy this, too. I have been sternly accused of anthropomorphizing more than once. However, such are the thoughts of stuffy folks who fail to associate academic inquiry with the equally valid magic of nature. I remain convinced that these friendly gray whales are people watching. Dr. Raymond M. Gilmore was for many years the San Diego Natural History Museum's respected marine biologist. Ray knew the gray whales better than anyone. When this "friendly" phenomenon began, Dr. Gilmore stated his belief that this was the whales' response to whale watching as it was being done; he believed the whales were telling us that our presence was ok with them. Me, too!

When Charles M. Scammon, the American whaler, sailed down from San Francisco in the 1850's and 60's to kill the whales for their oil, the animals' response was very different, though equally reasonable. Gray whales soon earned the name "Devil Fish" from the whalers, probably because they sent many a whaler to Hell with a flick of their one-ton tail! The grays would viciously attack the whaling skiffs and defend their young with their lives when attacked within their lagoons. This was a violent response to humans who were sharing their waters with deadly intentions, rather than in the mood of peaceful inquiry that characterized those of us in the 1960's and '70's, as well as the whale watchers of today. 

Could the whales' response be indicative of thought processes? Of intelligence? Or maybe even a sense of humor?

      © Piet Van de Mark 1984, 2017.

Remember black & white film? These photos are from the old days when color film was soooo slow, and Tri-X offered the dazzling film speed of 400 ASA, enough to allow a shutter speed that would freeze the motion of animal subjects. Today, 400 - 3200 ISO digital is the cat's meow for freezing friendly whales.

Another photograph from the old Black & White days of 1978...

This 16' baby gray whale is looking up at me and enjoying the vibrations and sounds of the outboard as it idles in neutral. 

This baby is on it's side, its right side up, flipper visible and eye clearly watching from above the slight curve at the back of its closed mouth. The typical "pickle dimples" and relatively short "rostrum" (or nose) evidence its age--not more than a couple of months. 

If that's not exciting enough, check out the form of the barnacle-blotched 40' mother whale floating quietly just at the surface right behind the motor and gently touching her child. 

In those "Good ol' Days" of the '70's, we operated our own whale camp--Mas Cafe--with those wonderful Zodiac inflatable boats that Jacques Cousteau made famous. 

Being gray and somewhat flexible, some of our guests suggested that perhaps the gray whales just naturally loved the Zodiacs? A pleasant thought; however, today we find friendly gray whales are very much attracted to white fiberglass boats. 

The truth, we believe, is that they are truly attracted to the friendly people inside the boats. 

Now, four decades later,  those California gray whales who choose to be friendly, are more friendly than  ever, and still bringing their month-old 16 foot kids over to meet our guests and learn about people watching! Some of the new crop of baby whales are now perhaps third-generation friendlies. Today, we're able to capture similar photos with far greater ease and in color with modern digital cameras. Please see below to visit The Best of Baja page and see more whale photos from recent whale seasons...


Click below to see 2016 Friendly Whales interacting with our Happy Guests: Whale Watching.htm

This friendly and curious little California gray whale was born in Scammon's Lagoon in 2009, the year this picture was taken.

 It's Mom has brought it over to our boats and given her OK to come close, perhaps to share her curiosity about the people in the boats who seem to be friendly. 

Friendly whales sometimes interact with boats in a manner comparable 

to interaction frequently observed with their own species when they seem to be at play. 

The baby's youth - just a couple of months - is distinguished by the pickle-like dimples on the front of its stubby head head.

 The eye is visible just to the left of the point where the line of the whale's mouth enters the water; the eye is partially open and just above the waterline after taking a quick glimpse of us in the boat.

Friendly whales will sometimes swim slowly by very close to the boat. Some just come over and hang out for a few minutes. In 2009 a mother and her baby stopped by and stayed with us for two hours! Unfriendly whales? Never met one. Most whales just go about their own business and let us whale watchers do the same.

When a young gray whale breaches within shooting distance of our boat, one must be very, very quick with the telephoto to get on target. 

The breach is over in under two seconds...but Roger's smile lingers on... 

We hope you're ready now to meet - and hopefully to be touched by - your own friendly gray whale. This coming season, we offer two personally escorted learning vacations into the heart of Baja's Enchanted Peninsula right in the heart of "prime time". Check out The Best of Baja page for details...or better yet, give us a call request your Baja Brochure, and let's talk about it! We'd enjoy chatting with you about your interests and what our learning vacation may offer you. 

Piet & Mary Van de Mark

Remember how those color snapshots from the '70's fade over the years? You'll find Piet's smiles haven't faded at all when it comes to visiting and re-visiting and sharing our experiences in the Enchanted Peninsula of Baja California. 

This smile was usually constant while running his Zodiac and taking pictures of whales, guests, birds, sunsets...whatever moved his imagination. 

Mary's smile is best when she's surrounded by the Sonoran Desert...forests of Boojums and blooming plants and cactus; or smiling back at a curious baby gray whale!

Those early days of the whale-watching base camps and the Zodiacs and four-wheel drive adventures are in the past now, but the experience lingers on in Baja California and the Greater American Southwest. Piet & Mary invite you to join them for a memorable learning vacation. Choose one that sparks your imagination, and give them a call !

Now Reserving:

March 16-24, 2019

Limited to 16 Guests.

Many Seasons Sell Out early. Don't Wait: Anticipate!


Contact us by phone: 520-887-2340 (Tucson, Arizona)

©Baja's Frontier Tours LLC - Tucson, Arizona 2004 & 2009

January 10, 2019

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