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Lessons from Mexico’s Mama Gray Whales nursery

The middle of March proved to be a great time to escape the lingering winter of the states and venture southward to Baja California. My choice of location also proved great for me, a mother of five and grandmother of ten precious kiddos, to learn more about this wondrous thing called motherhood. I returned with a bit more wisdom and a lot more admiration. And I could hardly wait to share my knowledge with my daughters and every other young mom and mom-to-be. My college universe for motherhood was Campo Cortez in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja, California, run by Baja Ecotours. (More information can be found on website My college professors (or should I say “professoras?”) were Mama Gray Whales. They congregate annually in mid-January to give birth to their calves. In the warm shelter of the lagoon, mamas feed, play, protect, and teach their young. In fact, more devoted mothers I dare one to discover.

Our group of twelve flew in a small plane from Ensenada, Mexico, to a dirt land strip about a thirty minutes bus drive from Campo Cortez. The flight was smooth and beautiful, as if we were supported by clouds and surrounded below by the ocean on one side and either hills decked in wild flowers or salt mines of brilliant white shooting upward. Accommodations in camp were basic cabins, small but clean. The meals were family style, rich in local dishes fit to please all. Each day we had two whale watching tours. We headed out with our boat drivers and guides for a few hours, on the lookout for Mama Grays and their babies.

The experience definitely seemed surreal. Six of us huddled in a panga (a small wooden boat 23 feet in length) to hopefully find a Mama Whale of about 40-45 feet with her Baby by her side. And Mamas and Babies we found—by the dozens on each outing. My first lesson about their motherhood habits was soon to be had. I recalled my moaning and groaning when I was a new mom, “Gosh, all this kid wants to do is eat. Will my babe ever be fully fed?” My own daughters echoed this sentiment when they became moms. In contrast, Mama Grays just seemed to float with the flow. Mom Grays lactate usually about seven months, which seems rather normal to a human. But calves drink about fifty gallons of their mothers’ 53% fat milk per day. And not once did I note a Mama Gray shrug her fluke as if to indicate, “Enough is enough.” She wanted her baby by her. She wanted to nurse. Baby whales do not suck; their mothers pump milk into their mouths. And calves love it. They can put on as much as 9 pounds an hour, while mothers lose a third of their weight while nursing. Mom Whales want to fatten up their children to be fit for the long migration ahead of them, approximately 6,000 miles to their winter homes in Alaska or the Arctic. Scientists tell us that a Mama Gray requires 65 tons of food annually to be healthy and to migrate. Her diet doesn’t sound to be all that scrumptious: mainly shrimp, krill, and small schooling fish that congregate near the ocean’s muddy bottom. Her baleen plates act like a sieve to let the water through but retain the catch, which are licked off the baleen by the tongue and swallowed. The throat expands like a balloon, and down the hatch the meal surrenders. My mind raced back to my long-ago frustration at nursing and my lack of patience. I learned from Mama Grays that nursing one’s young is an act of Pure Devotion. I was in awe in their surroundings.

Mama Grays are pros at playing with their babes. An awesome sight is a gray whale breaching. This is where half or more of the body length comes up out of the water. The whale will swim rapidly under water and then suddenly raise its head and body up and out of the water. It usually lands on its side or back with a tremendous splash. Usually a gray whale will breach several times in a row. Some theories say breaching is to knock off external parasites, such as barnacles. Others claim it is a display of courtship. But, calves breach more than adults so this suggests that breaching is for fun. And who taught them: yep, good ol’ mom. In fact, mom seems to be on the teaching platform from the moment of her baby’s birth. Her newborn will average 15 feet long at birth, weigh about a ton, and must surface and catch its first breath within 15 seconds. Within 30 minutes, the babe will learn to swim. As any mom and teacher knows, schooling has to be fun to be successful. Grays also lobtail or tail slap and fin slap. Lobtailing occurs when the whale lifts its tail flukes out of the water and then brings them down onto the surface of the water hard and fast to make a loud slap. Perhaps this action is to communicate; perhaps it is to scare fish or be a sign of aggression. Then, again, maybe it’s for fun, and mom and babe admire one another’s antics. On all of our six outings, we saw spy-hopping. Whales would lift their heads and part of their chest vertically out of the water so that their eyes were just above the water-line. They were looking around, checking us out, and having fun. Mamas were definitely in charge of play time. We would splash water alongside our panga to attract the whales to our sides. If, and only if, mama agreed, baby would come up to us, allow our cuddling arms to feel their peeled hard-boiled egg like backs, and even deliver kisses to us—again and again, until mama indicated, “No more.” Then she and baby would venture off, perhaps to float, to nurse, to entertain another boat, or simply to snooze for a brief while. It was all up to Mama. I gasped in amazement. Playtime from the moment of birth was crucial and parent-directed. I thanked the Mama for bestowing this important lesson to me, a measly human being.

Instinctively, Mama Grays protect their young. Unlike humans, who breathe involuntarily, whales must consciously think about surfacing to breathe. Mama watches baby do this. In fact, Mama never fully sleeps. She instead dozes with one half of her brain remaining active to focus. Mama has made the long migration of approximately 5,000-6,000 miles from Alaska or the Arctic where she gathered food to the warm shallow waters of San Ignacio to give birth. Then she teaches and all the while protects her young. In these shallow waters, the orcas (killer whales) do not enter. Mom will teach the calf before they venture out, usually in mid-April, to swim northward on their migration route. Mom knows full well of dangers: cargo ships, plastic, global warming, orcas, etc.
Mom’s body tells a tale of barnacles and whale lice. These barnacles attach themselves to gray whales in the lagoons when they are born. But, surprisingly, these barnacles are rather like hitchhikers. They attach and go along for the ride. Scientists tell us that whales often try to scrape barnacles off of themselves on the ocean’s bottom surface. Other times, they appreciate the barnacles for their nail-like armor in a fight against an orca. Likewise, whale lice feeds on the skin and damaged tissue, benefitting the whale. It seemed to me that Mama Gray knew perfectly what was a danger and what was a friend. I reminisced about my younger years as a mom and my daughters’ desires today for their children. We want to develop this gift: to know, as if instinctively, how much space to give, freedom to roam, mistakes to make on one’s own and how much rope to reign in and be the one in charge. Mama Grays seemed to know this ratio perfectly.

Our guides had named some of the Mama Grays and their babies. One pair, in particular, astounded me. Mama was called simply “Mama,” but her baby was named “Cigito,” which means “Little Blind One.” For some reason or other, this Mama epitomized relaxation and enjoyment to her blind child. She would send Cigito to our boat to play, to enjoy our splashes, to douse us with his nearness and kisses. Of course, Mama knows that Cigito will encounter struggles, probably very soon in their migration northward. However, Mama will be by his side. Mama will continue to feed, play, protect, and teach. She demonstrated these traits perfectly. Wonderfully, I enjoyed my stay at Campo Cortez. Who wouldn’t? We were embraced and taught in this Nursery of Love.

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