At Responsible Travel, we usually discourage any kind of interaction with wildlife. However, the situation in Baja is highly unique. Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon are zoned – with boats only able to enter a small section of them, so if the whales prefer to keep their distance, they can. The high number of whales means that the boats can sail into the lagoon, turn their engines off and simply wait for a grey whale to emerge. The most responsible way to see a whale is for the whale to initiate the encounter – and this is one of the few places where that regularly happens. Additionally, boats must only enter the lagoon displaying a flag. There are a limited number of flags available, and when they run out, the next boat must wait for another one to return, in order to go out using their flag. This reduces the number of boats on the lagoon – which is less disruptive for the whales, and even more special for the tourists.
Anyone who has encountered wild animals will be aware that mothers with their babies are the most nervous, unpredictable and sometimes aggressive animals that you can encounter. But what happens with the grey whales in Baja is extraordinary. The whales migrate here to give birth, so the calves are often just days old. The mothers actively nudge them towards the boats, encouraging them to explore, and it has been suggested that the mothers who “introduce” their babies to the boats had the same thing done to them when they, too, were calves.
This does mean, of course, that a certain amount of habituation will have taken place in order for the whales to feel comfortable around the boats – although this is the case in many whale watching destinations. The whales can be observed approaching the boats, rubbing underneath them and encouraging their calves to do the same – it could be argued that with all this interaction between boat and whale, it becomes a bit of a moot point whether or not a passenger then sticks their hand out to touch the whales’ head.
We spoke to Dylan Walker, marine biologist and CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance
to discuss the ethical implications of touching the whales in Baja:
“It’s absolutely right to question it and I suspect that San Ignacio probably will come in for more criticism as time goes by. We’re aware this is unusual, we’re very aware that we need to make decisions about the responsible viewing of these animals based on the best available scientific evidence. At the moment we can’t see any evidence that really shows this is a bad thing… the grey whales spend five months in the lagoons and then they leave, they migrate all the way up into the Arctic. Obviously they come across a lot of shipping traffic and a lot of boats, and clearly they’re not behaving in the same way during that time. We would see that, we would see lots of film and footage and photographs of that if they were coming up to boats in Monterrey Bay for example. They’re not doing any of that, because they’re migrating and – for whatever reason – they are not viewing people and boats in the same way. I think if they were, that would be a real cause for concern because there would be risks of collisions and extra risks… If the scientific evidence changes and shows that there is a significant impact on these animals from touching, then at that point we definitely need to review that really quickly. But given all the other positives that are coming out of the interaction between people and whales in San Ignacio, we’re happy to be part of the status quo.”