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Feeling Like They're Among Friends : For Whale Watchers, It's a Near-Perfect Experience

March 27, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"There are a lot of theories, but nothing certain," said Larry Fukuhara, program director at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and one of the organizers of the whale-watching trip. "There seems to be some connection there, between the whales and the humans, but we don't know what it is."

Hoaglund, the Santa Monica attorney, sensed that connection each time a curious whale would rise up and stare into his boat.

"You could look in the whale's eye and see intelligence," he asserted. "Even the calves demonstrated intelligence."

The behavior of the so-called "friendlies" is all the more astounding when measured against the savage, bloody history of mankind's interaction with the Pacific gray whale.

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The gray whales leave the Arctic waters in the fall and head south along the coast at a swimming speed of 4 to 6 m.p.h., drawing whale-watching charter boats out of harbors such as Marina del Rey as the animals pass near Southern California shores. A few months and about 6,000 miles later, the whales reach the warm shallow lagoons where they are safe from storms and natural predators. Males and females mate; those females will bear their young a year later. Already pregnant females give birth to 15- or 16-foot-long calves that grow rapidly on a diet of mother's milk, which is about 50% fat; the calves drink about 200 gallons of milk a day. By early March, the males leave the lagoons and head back north; by mid-April the mothers and their now-fat calves follow.

For thousands of years, Native Americans along the West Coast hunted gray whales as they passed by on their journeys to and from the Baja lagoons. Since gray whales seldom swim out of sight of land, they were an accessible source of food, if not necessarily an easy one. Weighing as much as 45 tons, they were dangerous prey for aboriginal hunters.

Native Americans, given their limited numbers and means, didn't make much of a dent in the gray whale population. In the mid-1850s, however, a whaling captain named Charles Scammon discovered the largest of the gray whales' birthing lagoons on the Baja coast. Later Scammon would write that in the lagoon, now known as Scammon's Lagoon, the whales were "huddled so thickly that it was difficult for a boat to cross the water without coming into contact with them."

The word of this whale bonanza spread quickly. Soon whaling ships were congregating outside the mouth of the lagoon and sending longboats inside to hunt the whales. Within four years the whales in Scammon's Lagoon had been virtually wiped out, turned into whale oil and other products.

(One highly sought whale part was the baleen plates, the flexible sieves through which whales sift out the small crustaceans on which they feed. Before the invention of plastics, the baleen material was used for women's corsets and other products requiring strong but flexible material.)

Although the whales lost the war, the battles between man and gray whales weren't always completely one-sided. Scammon wrote that "Hardly a day passes but there is upsetting or staving of the boats (by gray whales). . . . Repeated incidents have happened in which men have been instantly killed or received mortal injury."

In fact, despite its friendly reputation now, the gray whale was known to whaling men as the "devil fish" because of its ferocity in attacking when it was injured, or when its young were endangered.

By the end of the 19th Century, Pacific gray whales, which had once numbered about 20,000 animals, were so few in number that it was no longer profitable to hunt them.

Amazingly, the gray whale made a comeback, its numbers increasing steadily until once again the Baja lagoons were full of them. In the 1920s and '30s, there were so many that whalers once again came after them, killing them by the thousands and grinding them up for pet food. For the second time, the gray whale was almost wiped off the face of the earth.

In 1938, however, an international treaty was signed to protect the gray whale, and their numbers have been steadily increasing. Although whale censuses are difficult to do, experts estimate that there are now about 20,000 Pacific gray whales--the same number that existed in pre-commercial hunting times.

Although it was no secret to the local fishermen, who often had " las ballenas " approach their small fishing boats, the friendly behavior of the gray whales while they're inside the Baja lagoons was first noted by scientists in the 1970s. (The friendly behavior does not occur outside the lagoons, where the whales apparently are too busy migrating or feeding to pay attention to people.)

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Some scientists initially speculated that the "friendly whales" of the Baja lagoons were actually just one particular whale, a female named Gigi who had spent a year in captivity at SeaWorld in San Diego before being released into the Pacific, and thus presumably was accustomed to humans.

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