Thousands of gray whales make the annual, long-distance migration between the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic Ocean to the warm, protected bays of Baja California, where they breed and give birth. These majestic and friendly whales from the baleen family travel every year a long distance that covers 12,500 miles. Their presence is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Baja region.
Gray Whales are bottom feeders. Unlike all other whales, gray whales skim along the bottom of the ocean on one side of their body. As the whales scoop-up material along the continental shelf they stir up sediments where an abundance of nutrients and proteins have settled. This disturbance is vitally important to the food chain and the health of the ecosystem, because it allows other sea-dwelling creatures to consume the smorgasbord of free-floating food. They feed primarily in the Arctic, although some have been observed feeding during the migration.
At one time there were three gray whale populations: a north Atlantic population, now extinct due to over-hunting; the Western North Pacific stock, now very depleted also possibly from over-hunting; and the Eastern North Pacific population, the largest surviving population. Hunted to the edge of extinction in the 1850s after the discovery of the calving lagoons and again in the early 1900s with the introduction of floating factories, the gray whale was given full protection in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Since that time, the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population has made a remarkable recovery and now numbers range 27,000 closer to their original population size. By the 1970s, numerous efforts undertook to protect the habitat gray whales frequented. In Baja California, Mexico, the government set aside Latin America’s largest nature preserve (El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve) for a whale sanctuary and to protect the environment from further destruction.
During the whale watching season, the vast majority (at least 85%) of the local population switches hats and assumes jobs that support the tourism industry. The financial relief that the whale watching industry brings enables local fishermen to engage in sustainable use of the local environment. Over the past two decades, the industry has grown and diversified, spreading out from the initially targeted lagoons to southern and eastern Baja and the mainland coast. Mexico is now one of the top ten tourism destinations in the world and the high volume of international tourism has helped Mexico to become the most popular whale watching destination outside the United States.