As a wildlife photojournalist I try to be a fly on the wall. Being noticed by my subject or dramatically altering their behavior is never a goal.
I have photographed whales for almost 20 years. Usually I have to spend many weeks out at sea just to get two or three good encounters. However, working with grey whales in Baja California's San Ignacio Lagoon turned my approach on its head. This was the first time I had to wait for an animal to make physical contact before starting to make photographs. And when they do make contact, you have no choice but to engage with them—rubbing their heads, giving them a good scratch or splashing water on them. If you take the hands-off approach, they’ll hang around for less than a minute. They look at you as if to say “What, you’re not going to play?” And then they are gone.
Photographing these whales is an exchange—alternating between giving the whale the attention it wants and then sneaking in the pictures that I need to make.
In San Ignacio, I had so many moments when the whales were too close for my camera to focus and I had to wait until they moved back before I could press the shutter. The ability to go in with a wide-angle lens—to be that close for so long—has spoiled me for life. Any whale coverage I make in the future is going to pale in comparison.
In the 1800s gray whales were called “devil fish” because when whalers harpooned their calves, the mothers destroyed a lot of the small whaling boats. That narrative of aggression reverberated for years through the local fishing communities.
All of that changed in the mid 1970s when a curious whale approached group of fishermen. It stuck its head out of the water and kept coming closer. This made the fishermen incredibly nervous, but one of them conquered his fear. He held out his hand and touched the whale.
In some bizarre way, this proverbial peace treaty has developed over the years into a unique whale culture. Many mothers are now teaching their calves to interact with people. At a certain age they actively encourage the youngsters to approach small boats, sometimes even lifting them towards the surface, as if introducing the calf to people for the first time.
These are the descendants of the few gray whales that survived the horrors of the whaling era. To interact with them in such a playful manner is a truly joyous experience.
People have asked me if this type of interaction endangers the whales. In several places in the world, I have witnessed whale-watching boats compete in such a way that a whale is surrounded on all sides. This causes visible stress to the animal and the risk of propeller injuries can be high. San Ignacio lagoon is different and this tight knit isolated coastal community is letting the whales run the show by allowing them to initiate and control any interactions.
During the months of December to April when gray whales come into the lagoon to mate and calve, fishermen switch from fishing to whale tourism. With the ever declining fish stocks these whales are fast becoming the backbone of the local economy.
The fishermen of San Ignacio take their role of protector of this whale nursery very seriously. The well being of these whales is critical to the well being of the fishing community.
When the whales depart to begin their northward migration, they appear to leave their “friendly” behavior behind and are not known to approach other boats outside the lagoon.
Our planet’s biodiversity and wildlife are usually best enjoyed from a distance, to preserve both their safety and ours. The situation in San Ignacio is not the norm and the formula is unique to this place. But it’s an inspirational look at how one community’s relationship with whales has undergone a wonderfully bizarre transformation.
Witness gray whales for yourself on a National Geographic expedition to Baja.
Editor's note: The headline of this story was updated on December 19, 2020.