Ballenas Jorobadas: Whale Watching in Mazatlán

©2.DSC_0552-EditDo you know that only two types of whales sing? Lucky for us, the humpbacks that frequent the waters of Mazatlán are most definitely singers! The males are the ones that sing, and they do it to attract a mate. They invent new sounds in order to get noticed, and then, just like humans, other whales then copy their innovations.

Our family goes whale watching at least once each year (lots more info and pics in my posts from 2015, the trip with thousands of manta rays, swimming with dolphins in 2013, and a trip back in 2009 in which the whales approached nearly close enough to touch, and engaged in a lot of slapping and wrestling). We go out with Onca Expeditions, and they have a cute little gizmo (amplifier) they stick into the water to allow all of us on the boat to hear the whales’ singing. It’s awesome!

©1.DSC_0434.jpg

Not only do the humpbacks sing, they also love to do acrobatics. Often you will see them curling up out of the water and then diving down, tail raised into the air. When they’re competing for mates you can watch them slapping each other around. The humpbacks will breach, often with their full body in the air above the water, in an attempt to impress a female. Once couples pair off, the acrobatics tend to die down as well; lovers in love are more gentle than that. Often times mothers arrive here with their calves, which is gorgeous to watch. Click on any photo to enlarge it or to view a slideshow.

Whale watching season here is during the winter, and it is one of the activities I most highly recommend for you to do here in Mazatlán. Onca’s guides are marine biologists who are actively engaged in researching the cetaceans that frequent our waters. According to Jesús, who took us out this time, Onca has catalogued 420 whales since Oscar Guzón started his research in our waters, but they’ve only gotten through 2010 data. Jesús told me he believes they have photos and data on 1100 unique tails!

While I’ve been told humpbacks live to be about 50 years old, Jesús said they can live to be 80 or 100. He told me the age of a whale is determined via DNA testing and sometimes via photo ID. They’ve also found whales with bone harpoons stuck in them—sort of reminiscent of Moby Dick, don’t you think?

The official viewing distance for whale watching is 16 meters; no boat in our waters should approach closer than that, although if the whales approach your boat, lucky for you. I was told the humpbacks swim about 10 knots per hour, and the babies drink eight liters of milk per day.

Do not miss your chance to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat! We do it every year, and never tire of the experience.

 

Whale Watching in Mazatlán

 

1.DSC_0310 - Version 2

One of many happy humpback couples we saw on our excursion last week

I love how you all join in the excitement about our whale-watching trips with Onca Explorations. On our first trip in 2009 we had unbelievable good fortune; we had so many pods of whales come right up to the boat—breathing beside us and playing with us—that we lost count of how many whales we saw! The video on the link above will give you an idea. Remember, the camera is not zoomed on those shots! We felt like we could almost reach out and touch the whales, they came up so close to us.

Each year we have been blessed to see whales, though each time out has been a bit different. The humpbacks (ballenas jorobadas) that frequent our waters are the most acrobatic of the baleen whales; in fact, that’s how they got their name—the humped back motion they make when they breach out of the water. In addition to breaching, humpbacks spy-hop, lob-tail, tail-slap, and fin-slap. In our various outings we have seen humpbacks jump on top of each other and hit each other with their pectoral fins, which the males do to establish dominance and secure a mate. This time out, however, we saw a bunch of couples romancing—swimming around slowly and gently, courting and most probably mating with one another. Here, in warmer waters, is where the humpbacks mate and have their babies.

Onca’s owner, marine biologist Oscar Guzón, had to teach a class so did not go out with us this time. Saúl Herrera was our guide, and he told us that no one has ever recorded seeing humpbacks mate. Apparently it’s not uncommon to see huge gray whale penises in areas such as Baja, where they frequent. Saúl lowered a microphone so that we could hear the male humpbacks singing. They produce their haunting songs by pushing air through their nasal cavities.

Below is a short clip of one of the happy couples, swimming about romantically, with the Baja Ferry and the smaller Onca I (we were on the Onca II) in the background. First you’ll see their spouts, then the dorsal (back) fins come up, and, finally, the whale on the right dives sharply enough that the fluke comes briefly out of the water. Ah, love. You can see how coordinated their water ballet is.

The gestation period for humpback whales is 11-12 months, so calves this year were conceived in our waters last year 😉 Mature humpbacks reach 40-50 feet in length and weigh about 80,000 pounds (females are bigger than males). Their tail flukes—up to 18 feet across—are like human fingerprints: individual identifiers. No two flukes are alike.

Humpbacks live up to 50 years and are sexually mature at 6-10 years. Below you can see some of the great variety of flukes, as well as some of the spouts, that we saw during this trip. As you can see, there was a whole lot of love going on out there! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Oscar is a marine biologist, and he, Saúl and the crew of Onca have now spent nine years cataloguing and tracking the whales that frequent our waters. Their research has made huge contributions to what scientists now understand about humpback behavior at the southern tip of the Sea of Cortéz. Below is a clip of Saúl telling us a bit about cetaceans in our waters, including that they have recorded sightings of 17 species of cetaceans here in Mazatlán.

In addition to whales, this year we saw two species of dolphins (bottle nose and spotted) and, the stars of the trip, the mantas. Be sure to click on the link if you haven’t seen those photos!

Another great advantage of this whale-watching excursion with Onca is the great view of Mazatlán from the water.

 

 

Manta Merrymaking

1.DSC_0260 - Version 3 In my next life, I want to be a manta. I’ve always said I want to be a Kobe cow, so I could drink beer and get massaged all day. But, in 2015, I hereby declare that being reincarnated as a manta ray looks oh-so-much more fun! We went out whale watching this week with Onca Explorations.

Whale watching has been our traditional Christmas gift to each other as a family since 2009. And a wonderful gift it is! The highlight of the trip this year for me were the mantas! We did, indeed, see whales; I will post pictures and write about that separately. But the mantas!

They were having so much fun! There were so very many of them—hundreds—and they kept jumping and flying and splatting and splashing, performing their high jinks all over our bay with their friends, for what seemed like forever. They just didn’t stop. What a joyful bunch they are! It reminded me of dancing sessions with my girlfriends…

The mantas’ bodies change so completely with every leap. They slap their wings against the water in a loud “thump!” 1.DSC_0253 - Version 2 That slap launches them into the air, where their wings curl up the opposite way, wrapping themselves backwards, in a rebound of sorts. 1.DSC_0261 - Version 2 They leap into the air—seemingly soaring over the skyscrapers on the beach, as you can see in the photos. 1.DSC_0246 - Version 3 They then fall back into the water with another loud “splat,” and start the process all over! 1.DSC_0234 - Version 2 And they do all of this in the company of hundreds of their joy-filled friends, frolicking about in a big band of craziness. 1.DSC_0279 - Version 2 And did I mention that mantas are HUGE? These looked to be maybe 3 or 4 feet across, and they get much bigger. Below is a short video clip of some of the manta merriment. I highly recommend you take a whale-watching excursion with Onca. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some mantas!

What makes the mantas leap so? Are they mating and courting, and perhaps the manta with the biggest splash is the sexiest? Are they just having fun, partying hearty with their friends? Are they wanting some Vitamin D from the sun? Whatever the reason, I sure did enjoy them!

Click on any of the photos in the album below to view it larger or see a slideshow.

National Geographic published a video of the largest-ever-witnessed group of mobula rays in our Gulf of Cortes. It is incredible! Watch it below:

Boy Are We Spoiled!

blow oncaNot only do we live on this gorgeous Bay of Mazatlán, with the huge variety of flora and fauna we enjoy every day, but we have locals who have left town to study, become experts, and return to give back to and enjoy fully of this wonderful community of ours.

Such is the case with Oscar Guzón, a marine biologist from a local family who not only owns and operates Onca, but advocates tirelessly for the environmental well being and conservation of our port city and its beautiful bay.

We were fortunate to meet Oscar shortly after having moved down here full time. I’ve written previously about Onca’s whale watching expeditions, which are by far the best I’ve experienced, East Coast or West, Europe or Asia. Passengers’ enjoyment of the whale watching experience is part of their larger effort to catalog and study the whales, their habits and migration patterns.

Well, Onca has added another marine mammal to their studies: the dolphin. Going out with Onca, you’ll learn about the dozens of species of this cetacean, and the fact that we have a huge percentage of those species right here in Mazatlán. Onca’s crew are doing for the dolphins what they’re doing for the whales: cataloguing, studying and tracking them, as part of larger efforts throughout the Sea of Cortes and points south.

Their new “swim with the dolphins” program is not to be missed! We were completely surrounded by these amazing creatures, many times over. Now, maybe you can swim as fast as a dolphin, but I certainly can’t! First time in the water, I swam. Second time, I used a life preserver; it was much more enjoyable for me to just sort of float there among the gorgeous dolphins as they swam, frolicked and jumped around me. Trying to keep up with them was obviously not going to work!

The Onca crew are consummate professionals, the boat and equipment top-knotch and safe. They don’t just provide a tour, they provide an education, and are committed to giving us the best experience possible: we swam, we snorkeled, they provided sandwiches and drinks, and they watched over us to keep us safe and happy. It’s beautiful to see how much they love and respect the wildlife as well as this gorgeous place in which we are fortunate to live.

Thank you, Oscar, Belén, Saúl, and Michel. Here is a short video of our dolphin swim on Wednesday.

PS: I’m not being paid or remunerated for this post. It’s just a whole lot of fun, and I want to let you all know.

Whale Watching

We went whale watching today, one of our Christmas gifts to each other. It was an INCREDIBLE day!!!!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were told we’d go out 3-5 miles to see the whales, but we were barely on the outer edge of the bay when we saw two whales:

All of a sudden there were three:

Before we knew it there were four…

We’d be with a pod of whales, and then we’d see another off to the right, and yet another off to the left. We were surrounded by humpbacks! We were told humpbacks often travel alone, or maybe in twos (most often 2 males or a male and female), but we were so fortunate today and saw several groups. By the end of the day, we way lost count of how many whales we saw.
Below is some video that Greg took of the whales, to give you an idea of 45 seconds of our day. It starts out a bit blurry but gets much better. Or,  click here to view the video in higher def.

Oscar and Belen from Onca Exploraciones RoCK!!! If you haven’t gone out with them yet, you definitely need to. I have gone whale watching about eight times in my life, I’ve seen much bigger whales (blue whales vs. humpbacks, for example), and Danny and I even spent ten days at a marine biology camp, but this was really special. The boat, Oscar, and Belen are pictured below (Belen is in the middle in the photo on the right; Oscar’s photo is blurry because he’s always moving and speaks with passion—surely no photographer error, lol):



Oscar and Belen are both marine biologists. Oscar is working on his PhD research, a project to photo-ID the whales that frequent the waters of Mazatlán. Amazingly, to date this has not been done. Over the past three years, Oscar has photo-identified 174 different whales. Like human fingerprints, whales have unique visual identifiers, often the underside of their tail fins, sometimes also the scars they bear, and this is what they track. I post a couple of photos of flukes below, so you can see the uniqueness, as well as a close-up of some scarring, to give you an idea of how they ID the whales. Oscar, if I’m wrong about this, let me know and I’ll correct this wording. Below you can see:

  1. The first tail has white spots all along the edge.
  2. The second has barnacles or something stuck to the edge of the tail.
  3. The third has specks of white on the outside, becoming more fully white in the center underside of the tail.
  4. The fourth has white on either side, but a black triangle in the center underside of its tail.
  5. The last photo below shows some typical scarring, which can also help identify the whales.




So, anyway, their goal is to take photos of the whales and give each of them a name or identification, so that they can then be tracked and their patterns learned. The good thing for us is we get to ride along. It is a small boat—maximum six passengers, so we were able to get very close to the whales. We were able to get so close that we felt we could almost reach out and touch the gorgeous creatures. Danny and our neighbor Brian wanted to jump out of the boat and swim with the cetaceans.

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar gave us a pre-trip briefing on whales, particularly humpbacks. We learned a lot both before departure and during the cruise. For example, humpbacks are balleen whales. There are three main northern Pacific groups: those that migrate from the Arctic to Japan, those that go from Alaska to Hawaii, and the whales we see here, that migrate along the coast of North America. The humpbacks have striations on their stomachs, the wrinkles we have all seen in pictures. We learned these are like stretch marks (my analogy :)), so that the whales’ stomachs can stretch out when they suck in a bunch of plankton and water, and so that the stomachs resize themselves to normal when the whales push out all that extra water. We learned that when the humpbacks are up north, in the summer, they eat and eat and eat, storing up blubber. Then, when they come south, they don’t eat for four months or more! Down south here is their breeding ground, where they have their babies. The adult males are busy showing off for the adult females, since there seem to be MANY more males than females, and great demand to win the honor of partnering with a lady whale. The men sing to attract the women; the longer the song, the stronger his lungs. The men also fight to attract the women, or at least to establish their ranking in the whale hierarchy and be the first in line to collect their winnings… We saw whales thrashing around a lot. Typical me, I delighted in the fact that they were playing. No, Oscar told me, they are actually fighting with each other–hitting one another with their fins, and we even saw some jumping on top of one another as if they were wrestling. A slide show is below:

Whales Fighting

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today was the first day of Christmas break, so of course Danny was NOT excited when he had to wake up for a 7:30 am rendezvous in the marina:

But, after a few whales, here’s what the teenager had to say about the day:

The thing that made this trip so different for me was the SOUND. It is quiet out there, with the motor off and only a few people on board the boat. If you’ve been out in a sailboat, you know the feeling. But, when you are in the midst of so many whales, what you hear is silence plus, suddenly, the whales breeching, or blowing; you can even hear them breathing…. it is sooooo beautiful! The first photo below you can see a whale’s blowhole, on the whale on the left. The second photo below shows a humpback’s head.

 
National Geographic Traveler highlighted whale watching in Mazatlán as one of the great adventures on our planet. 🙂

 

Whales Diving

Finally, let me conclude this blog post with one last slideshow, of a humpback taking a dive. Merry Christmas and happy new year!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.