When a whale dives and descends out of sight, a shiny, almost oily-looking round “print” forms on the water’s surface. Old-time whalers would chase a whale following these fluke prints. Modern whale-watchers follow them too.
Whales spend most of their time out of sight. The delight of whale watching is the surprise of a huge sea animal breaking the surface. The vocabulary of whale watching includes fluking, breaching, lobtailing, spyhopping, flippering, and petting.
Fluke “prints” are not a substance, but hydraulic action formed by turbulence. A ring-like wall of water blocks waves from entering. Both whale and watcher hold their breath in anticipation of the immense cough when the great marine mammal blows.
A pillar of vapor shoots up. Scanning the horizon for blows, we track three famous species of baleen whales in Cabo Expeditions’ innovative expedition Whales of Baja. Traveling to three contrasting habitats of Baja, we’ll seek humpbacks off Cabo, gray whales in Pacific lagoons and blue whales by Loreto in the Sea of Cortez.
It’s easy to identify a humpback when it breaches, revealing its stout body and long flippers. “In the mating season, they are noted for their amorous antics. At such times their caresses are of the most amusing and novel character,” wrote naturalist and infamous whaler Charles M. Scammon in the 1870s.
Whale observers note the most common “antics.” Breaching means leaping head first, creating a great splash that can be seen and heard for miles. Fluking is to dive at a steep angle, arching the body and revealing the underside of the tail flukes.
To lobtail is to slap the water loudly with the tail. In a peduncle slap, the powerful muscle connecting the tail to the body thrusts the tail up higher and comes down hard. It’s considered an aggressive move.
Flippering is slapping the water with the pectoral fins; petting is a humpback’s gentle touch on another whale, usually a mother to a calf. Spyhopping is when the whale thrusts its head straight up so it can see what’s going on above water.
Competing males holding close to a nubile but fickle female sometimes create dense streams of bubbles. They might head slap, lunging their head up out of the water and bringing it down hard.
Gray whales famously migrate en masse to lagoons on the Pacific coast of Baja. These whales of “unusual sagacity,” as Scammon called them, spy hop to people-watch the whale watchers. There’s plenty of breaching in that annual festival of mating in the world’s first whale sanctuary.
The giant blue whale—biggest animal on earth, ever—is not so acrobatic. Look for them lunge-feeding in the rich waters of the Loreto Marine Park—taking huge gulps that inflate their pleated throats.
Whale watchers see many species in the cetacean heaven that is Baja California Sur. “Mexico rightly takes great pride in its whale protection measures. The nation was one of the first to call for protections of cetaceans, in the 1930s.” states a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Operators with whale-watching permits, such as Cabo Expeditions, follow strict rules to maximize safe and respectful experiences for both watchers and whales.
To join Cabo Expeditions’ Whales of Baja adventure, visit: www.caboexpeditions.com.mx/adventures/baja-whale-watching/