Up close and personal with Scammon's Lagoon whales

Jim Sumich: "We still don't know simple things"

Gray whale cow and calf. “I’ve watched cow-calf pairs when there are killer whales around, and they get right up in the rocks. They stop swimming. It’s obvious they’re hiding." (Marc Chamberlain)

Jim Sumich has photographed gray whales from airplanes and studied them from blimps. The Grossmont College marine biology professor has sat on the beach and counted the animals’ distant spouts. He’s spent thousands of hours among them in San Ignacio Lagoon, one of the Baja havens where the cows birth their young.

Gray whale flukes. "The parent animal, in her frenzy, will chase the boats, and overtaking them, will overturn them with her head, or dash them in pieces with a stroke of her ponderous flukes.”

As he’s done these things, he has wondered about the whales’ intelligence. This is a topic upon which humans have long reflected. Charles Scammon, the 19th-century gray-whale-mass-murderer-cum-naturalist, noted in 1874 that the “testimony of many whaling-masters furnishes abundant proof that [gray] whales are possessed of unusual sagacity” A belief in that sagacity also is commonplace among the whale-watching amateurs whose numbers have grown over the last few decades. But as a whale-watching professional, Sumich says his own sense of the grays’ intelligence has vacillated. He says there are times when he’s out in the lagoon and “it feels like I’m in the middle of a herd of Herefords. Just dumb as posts! You look in that eye, and you just can’t see a flicker.” At other times, Sumich says some of the whales’ actions have astounded him.

One whale “came right next to the skiff and everyone was rubbing it and petting it.”

He mentions one occasion, for example, when he and some of his students were in San Ignacio lagoon collecting samples of the whales’ breath. A whale cow and calf approached their boat and the calf was “friendly as anything; all over the edge of the boat,” Sumich recalls. He says he wanted the students to have the fun of petting the ebullient juvenile. “So I got into the bow, and I leaned back to watch.” After a few moments, Sumich says the mother whale thrust her huge head out of the water in the vertical position known as spyhopping. She was just off the side where the professor was sitting, and he says something prompted him to extend a finger out over her nose. “I felt like E.T.,” he recalls today. “The wind was blowing like crazy, so we had a two-foot-high wind chop. The boat was skidding sideways in the wind. Yet she kept her snout top a half-inch from the tip of my finger for probably 35 seconds. She compensated for the movement to a millimeter. Her eye was underwater. But she was right on. My students forgot about the calf and they just stared.”

At San Ignacio I saw more whale spouts in the first ten minutes of that boat ride than I’d seen in 23 years of living in Southern California.

Sumich also tells about the young whale in the lagoon whom he nicknamed Johnson — after the popular boat motor. “It would come over and find us and play around for a while. But it really didn’t solicit touching and petting like a lot of them do. All it wanted to do was go under the boat and turn on its side, open its mouth and grab the prow of the boat. I’m still not sure how it did this. But it would tow as around the lagoon. It came up and breathed when it needed to. Then it would go back and get into the same position.”

Gondola car of whale bones from Magdalena Bay, 1915. Whalers flocked to Magdalena Bay, and by the spring of 1853 they’d slain between 450 and 500 gray whales there.

I asked Sumich how he explains such behavior. What does it say about how smart the whales are? “We’re constrained by using terms and descriptions that are from our human realm of experience,” he responded. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads. And I don’t know how to get at that.”

Beached whale at whaling station, Ballast Point, circa 1883. By 1858 the stench of boiling blubber had become a fixture at La Playa, a few blocks south of where Shelter Island’s southern tip now extends. Over the next 28 years, whaling stations also operated at Ballast Point.

Moreover, many far more basic questions about gray whales still confound cetologists. Sumich says that back in the early 1970s, when he first looked at the scientific research that had been compiled about the species, “it was just appalling how little there was — for an animal that had been repeatedly touted as one we understood very well.” Since then, some advances have been made, Sumich allows. “But we still don’t know simple things. Like how many there are. How fast they grow. How long they live. We don’t know where the juveniles go. We don’t know even if [young gray whales] migrate. And this is 25 years later. That’s a quarter of a century. For a species of large whale that is without any doubt more accessible than any other one out there.”

That accessibility also makes it easy to kill gray whales. And for hundreds of years, humans were more enthusiastic about slaughtering the giant mammals than studying them. The killing began first off the shores of western Europe and eastern North America, where an Atlantic population of gray whales is presumed to have favored shallow coastal waters, just as the California grays do. Very little is known about these Atlantic gray whales, but carbon dating of fossil remains indicates that some gray whales still survived off colonial America in the early 1700s.

High-seas whalers had reached the Pacific by 1789, but they concentrated on chasing sperm whales. Not until the winter of 1845 did two Connecticut captains decide to target grays in southern Baja’s Magdalena Bay. That season, “the whalers of Hibernia captured 22 grays and those ofUnited States took 10,” historian I >avid Henderson has recorded. “They found that the gray whales had no bone worth saving. More importantly, they learned, as did all whalers who chased grays, that they were in a dangerous business. The grays killed the second mate and badly injured the first mate of United States.”

Undeterred, whalers flocked to Magdalena Bay, and by the spring of 1853 they’d slain between 450 and 500 gray whales there, by Henderson’s estimate. The next year, the first shore-based whaling station opened in Monterey Bay, and others soon followed down the coast. Shore-based whalers launched small (15- to 31 -foot) boats and used them as platforms for attacking the whales with harpoons and bombs fired from shoulder-supported guns. They towed the animals’ carcasses back to shore and stripped the fat from the bones. By 1858 the stench of boiling blubber had become a fixture at La Playa, the shoreline of San Diego Bay a few blocks south of where Shelter Island’s southern tip now extends. Over the next 28 years, whaling stations also operated at Ballast Point (site of the current lighthouse) and just across the channel at Zuniga Point on North Island.

The men who ran these stations caught their prey outside the harbor mouth. Despite a common belief that gray whales once used San Diego Bay as their winter mating and calving grounds, whale historian Henderson and other authorities concur that this never happened. For a dozen years after gray whales were first attacked in Magdalena Bay, they did find refuge in the large lagoons along the Baja coast. These lagoons were hidden from view behind narrow, shallow entrance channels, but in the winter of 1857-58, a sea captain from Maine who’d been lured to California by the gold rush figured out how to make his way into one of them. (The name of Charles Scammon still designates that body of water on many maps, though others now call it Ojo de Liebre.) In 1859, the canny Scammon also figured out how to navigate through the sandbars at the mouth of San Ignacio Lagoon to the south.

As other whalers joined him there, the blood of men and whales mingled in the confined waters. “Hardly a day passes but there is upsetting or staving of boats, the crews receiving bruises, cuts, and, in many instances, having limbs broken; and repeated accidents have Happened in which men have been instantly killed or received mortal injury,” Scammon later wrote about the carnage. “[I]n a lagoon, the object of pursuit is in narrow passages, where frequently there is a swift tide, and the turbid water prevents the whaler from seeing far beneath the boat. Should the chase be made with the current, the fugitive sometimes stops suddenly, and the speed of the boat, together with the influence of the running water, shoots it upon the worried animal when it is dashing its flukes in every direction.... Another danger is that in darting the lance at the mother, the young one, in its gambols, will get in the way of the weapon, and receive the wound, instead of the intended victim. In such instances, the parent animal, in her frenzy, will chase the boats, and overtaking them, will overturn them with her head, or dash them in pieces with a stroke of her ponderous flukes.” Gray whales, dubbed “devilfish” by the whalers, “show a power of resistance and tenacity of life that distinguish them from all other Cetaceans,” Scammon concluded.

Nonetheless, by 1874, West Coast whalers had killed a total of between 8044 and 8090 gray whales, Henderson has calculated. That number probably represented a half to two-thirds of the total population at the time, and it included a large percentage of cows who were either pregnant or accompanied by calves (whose simultaneous or subsequent deaths went unrecorded). Less than 30 years after the slaughter of gray whales began, the bays and lagoons that once had teemed with them were “already nearly deserted,” Scammon wrote. “The mammoth bones of the California gray lie bleaching on the shores of those silvery waters and are scattered along the broken coasts from Siberia to the Gulf of California; and ere long it may be questioned whether this mammal will not be numbered among the extinct species of the Pacific.”

Though not extinct, grays were scarce enough for the whalers to lose interest in them until 1914, when a Norwegian factory ship began attacking the animals off Baja. Catches were small at first but built during the 1920s, and for the next two decades, American, Russian, and Japanese whalers joined in.

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Compared to their 19th-century predecessors, the 20th-century hunters’ record paled; they killed only about 940 gray whales between 1914 and 1946. And during that interval, people for the first time turned their attention to protecting the remaining animals. The first voluntary agreements about quotas began in 1932, and by 1951 all nations with factory ships in the North Pacific had pledged to refrain from taking gray whales, except under certain circumscribed conditions.

Some of the first significant modem scientific work on gray whales began soon after this, initiated by Ray Gilmore, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in La Jolla. Along with renowned ichthyologist Carl Hubbs, he started counting southbound migrating whales from the roof of the Scripps Institution. By the early 1950s, the two men’s attempts to gauge the whales’ numbers expanded to include regular aerial surveys. This work revealed a slow but steady pattern of recovery.

Yet by 1959 gray whales had started to be killed again — this time under the combined aegis of science and commerce. Using special permits for scientific research (one of the exceptions to the protective agreements), two marine biologists named Rice and Wolman began directing a program for the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in which commercial fishing vessels captured some 316 gray whales off the coast of central California over an 11 -year period. The dead whales were delivered to onshore facilities where the scientists recorded their dimensions, blubber thickness, stomach contents, and other features. They did this, Sumich points out, “for the stated purpose of evaluating population parameters to determine when commercial hunting of gray whales should be renewed.” By the time this work wound down in the late 1960s, however, whales had become ecological icons. “In 1970, we had our first Earth Day,” Sumich says. The Marine Mammal Protection Act followed in 1972. Support for renewed commercial whaling had become extinct, rather than the whales, and as a result. Rice and Wolman wrote up the information gleaned from those 316 whales as a biological study, rather than as a commercial one.

When that work, The Life History and Ecology of the Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus), appeared in 1971, San Diego’s whale-watching industry was already launched. As early as 1959, Ray Gilmore had begun taking interested spectators on short excursions off Point Loma, and sportfishing companies followed suit. In 1969, Gilmore helped organize a journey down to Scammon’s Lagoon sponsored by Palomar College and the San Diego Natural History Museum (where Gilmore had become the marine mammals research curator). “It was the first ecotourism trip anywhere in the world. That’s where the industry started,” says Margie Stinson.

Now a biology teacher at Palomar College, Stinson was a student at the time. She says Gilmore laid down some ground rules for the lagoon visitors. Among other things, he declared that the main boat and all skiffs launched from it should keep a 150-yard distance from the whales. “He just felt that that was the appropriate distance,” Stinson says. “He didn’t want anybody to be endangered — the whales or the people.” Trip members followed the rule, “and we were thrilled and excited to see whales out in the distance— to see the whales blow and to see the tail of a whale and the back of a whale.”

More tourist excursions to the lagoons followed that first one, and the interest of San Diego residents in gray whales also got a boost when Sea World won permission to capture a baby gray whale and transport it to the park for an extended period of study. The 4400-pound youngster, who came to be known as Gigi, enjoyed lavish media attention and attracted thousands of visitors during her stay here. “She was the first gray whale I ever saw,” says Jim Sumich.

He had just come to San Diego the year before, in 1970, having finished a master’s degree in biological oceanography up in Oregon. “I was broke and had a k)t of educational debts and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do for a Ph.D.,” he recalls. So he took a job as a marine biology instructor at Grossmont College. It was an unorthodox assignment at the time. Sumich says conventional wisdom dictated that the study of marine biology be restricted to college seniors or graduate students. But he and others soon found that it grabbed the attention of even nonbiology majors and could be used to educate them about basic biological principles. One frustration was that no course materials existed for such beginning students. So Sumich and another professor developed a lab manual and Sumich wrote a textbook to fill the void. Now in its sixth edition, “it’s done really well,” Sumich says, adding that royalties from it have funded a lot of his subsequent gray-whale research.

Sumich credits Gigi for guiding him into that work. As her stay at Sea World progressed, he says he found himself jumping into the “sometimes acrimonious debate” over various aspects of the young whale’s management. “And I was told repeatedly, ‘Unless you really know what you’re talking about, why don’t you sit down and shut up?’ ” In response^ he applied himself to studying the scientific literature on gray whales. He says the more he delved into this, the more he realized “nobody knows anything about gray whales! And the few things that have been published ought to be, if not challenged, at least examined again from another point of view or another technique.”

In some cases, patent nonsense passed as science. Sumich mentions one paper that analyzed gray-whale mating behaviors and “made these animals come off like spiders weaving a web. It said that there are 23 different specific sequential steps they have to go through to accomplish copulation, and if it’s interrupted anywhere they have to go back to square one and start over again.” Among other things, this paper asserted that gray whales have sex in ménages à trois, with one of the three animals supporting the copulating duo.

Today this notion remains embedded in gray-whale popular culture. I’ve found it in books. One day this past February, I heard a naturalist recount it—as fact — to a day boat full of Boy Scouts. A few weeks later, on the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon, I heard another fellow with a master’s degree in marine biology pass it on to an eager group of adult whale tourists.

“Excuse me, but it’s just bullshit,” Sumich counters. First he points out the logistical problems of ascertaining just what mating whales are doing underwater. “Let’s start with the easy things: How many animals are in these courting groups? Sometimes there are 3. Sometimes there are 17. And sometimes there are 2. How can you determine the gender of the participants in these groups? You can’t! When a male rolls upside down and a pink floyd goes flying through the air, you can tell that’s a male. But if you’re seeing it, he’s not succeeding reproductive^. When he is succeeding, you cannot be seeing it. Nor can any other observer. Nobody gets in the water with courting groups of gray whales. Because they would never survive the experience!”

Sumich says just last year he sat in a blimp about a mile off La Jolla Point watching two young gray whales “who were all over each other.” Three dolphins also threaded their way in and out of the group. “I never saw any real indication of copulation. But I could never tell either. We watched them for a long time. And I had a better view from the blimp than anybody does from a boat.”

Besides the lack of any reliable evidence for the existence of gray-whale sexual facilitators, the very idea makes no biological sense, he contends. “What would be the basis for it evolving? What’s in it for the helper? Furthermore, we impose no reproductive handicaps on any other species of whale. We assume that everybody else out there — dolphins, blue whales — can do it all by themselves.” Why should gray whales alone need assistance?

Not only their sex lives but something as basic as the gray whales’ migration rates seemed to Sumich worth questioning back in the early 70s. To get more answers he started taking some of his students to Point Loma, armed with surveying equipment. With this gear, they tracked individual gray whales and calculated how fast they were swimming. Before long, the professor was able to correlate the whales’ breathing rates with the swimming speeds. But rather than putting any controversies to rest, this work led Sumich to focus on the whales’ energy needs and to wonder whether the animals’ metabolism worked the way people assumed it did.

The prevailing assumption dated back 150 years. When the early whalers had cut into the stomachs of their prey, “sometimes they found a little bit of eel grass,” Sumich says; sand and stones also turned up. “But basically [the stomachs] were empty.” This led to the belief that adult gray whales feasted during their summer sojourn in Arctic waters but did not eat the whole time they were migrating—some five to seven months out of the year.

That’s a pretty astonishing feat, Sumich points out. “Most of the mammals we know who go for months without feeding are hibernating. They’re unconscious. But [gray whales] are up and active and doing everything.” And “everything” for the pregnant females includes not just swimming 10,000 to 12,000 miles but also birthing and nursing babies who balloon in size from the time of their births in Baja to their arrival at the summer feeding grounds. Could stored blubber be the cows’ sole fuel source throughout this grueling journey? By 1977, Sumich had begun a Ph.D. project to try to determine whether a fasting migration even fell within the realm of physiological possibility.

A crucial key was the baby whales, Sumich says. No one knew how many calories they needed from their mothers in order to grow and engage in normal activity. Although the growth demands could be estimated (from changes in the youngsters’ sizes), the metabolic rate remained more of a mystery. Sumich figured, however, that if he could obtain samples of the young whales’ exhalations over time and analyze how much oxygen they were using, this would go a long way to solve the mystery (since there’s a close correlation between metabolic rate and oxygen consumption). Furthermore, by 1977 there was reason to believe that a researcher could go into San Ignacio Lagoon and collect samples of baby whale breath as a routine procedure.

The previous year, early in 1976, word had reached San Diego that one or more of the gray whales in the lagoon seemed to be acting in an unorthodox manner. One man who witnessed this was Dennis Kreutel, then the captain of a boat called the Finalista 100. Today Kreutel works as a drug-and-alcohol counselor in Sacramento. When I reached him by phone and asked him about the remarkable encounter, he whooped with enthusiasm at the memory.

He says he’d taken out a skiff carrying a couple of passengers, and they’d watched some whales near the lagoon mouth. After a while, Kreutel had announced it was time to return to the Finalista 100. “I’d no more started the skiff s engine when I looked down and there was this whale coming up at me. I went, ‘Whoa!’ All those years, we had always been very careful to not let them get too near the skiffs. So I took off, and just as I did, it spyhopped. Next thing I knew, I looked behind me, and it was right underneath. I thought he was going to come up and hit the skiff. I finally told the people. This is weird. I don’t know what this thing is doing.’ I slowed down again and the next thing I know, here it comes again. This happened about five times, and I got back [to the main boat] and said, ‘Man, this is something else! This thing is chasing me all over the place.’ ”

The whale swam off after a few minutes, but “that evening is when the real show started,” Kreutel continued. The crew had removed the motors from the skiffs, which were tied up behind the main boat, when someone noticed that a gray whale had returned and was jostling the little rubber boats. Kreutel and another man jumped into one of them “and the animal started bouncing us around. Then all of a sudden we reached down and started touching them. Everyone got stoked!”

Kreutel says in the trips that followed, many people got to caress the animals, and he sometimes had more unusual interactions with them. One whale “came right next to the skiff and everyone was rubbing it and petting it,” Kreutel recalls. “It was a beautiful sunny day. I was in my shorts. And I thought, ‘I’m going for it.’ I just stepped out of the skiff onto his back, and he started to go away, and I thought, ‘Oh, great.’ He went down to where the water was just above my knees, and then he came back to the skiff, and I stepped off. That’s how friendly they got!”

Kreutel remembers only that his first friendly encounter took place sometime early in 1976. Ray Gilmore took pains to record the date when he first had a similar experience. It happened February 23, 1976. Gilmore was onboard the Qualifier 105, a sportfishing boat that had been chartered by the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. The sequence of events was much the same as that recalled by Kreutel. Someone reported a whale playing around the stern of the ship, and when people climbed into one of the attached skiffs, “the friendly whale would present itself alongside and solicit attention, in one case even ignoring an adjacent empty skiff,” Gilmore wrote in a subsequent magazine article. “Most of us aboard the Qualifier 105 touched or rubbed the friendly whale. And one crewman, Ron Acosta, kissed her on the snout. This intimacy was topped by a crewman of another boat, Mike George, who hugged the lady-whale around the narrow ends of the jaws as she held her head vertically in a spy-out alongside the skiff.”

In that same article, Gilmore states that 1976 “was the first year that the attention-soliciting behavior occurred.” That’s not what some Mexicans believe. Pancho Mayoral Jr., a local fisherman who works at the lagoon during whale seasons as a boat driver and naturalist, told me that his father had his first encounter with an amistosa in 1972. No one came to San Ignacio Lagoon for whale watching in those days, the son pointed out. “My dad was just fishing. This area is very good for grouper and spotted bass. And many times, one whale came to the boat, but mv father would go away because he didn’t want to have the boat in the water with the whale under the boat.”

One time, however, “the whale came like a surprise... right to them, and in the beginning they were scared,” the son says. “But then later was a big temptation — to have a huge animal there that didn’t attack them. So they touched it.” Pancho says his father remembered that this happened in 1972 because that was the same year Pancho was born.

If certain whales were making friendly overtures to Mayoral Sr. in 1972 (and he has a widespread reputation for integrity), then he didn’t convince all his peers that encounters with the whales could be benign. In 1978 — a full two years after Americans first delighted in the cetacean conviviality —gray whales still terrified many Mexican fishermen at the lagoon, according to Steve Swartz. Now a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Miami Science Center, Swartz and his wife, Mary Lou Jones, went to the lagoon that year to begin a five-year study of the impact of tourism on the animals. He recalls, “It was funny to us to be sitting on the beach, with binoculars, counting whales and to have a panga come by with these guys beating on the hull with baseball bats and singing at the top of their lungs. When we got to know them and asked them what they were doing, they said they were trying to make as much noise as possible so that no whales would surface while they were motoring along.” Swartz says their fear sprang from more than just some memory fragment of the “devilfish” who once had counterattacked the whalers. “During the whale season, the whales were a real navigational hazard,” he asserts. “There were collisions and there were some deaths attributed to pangas slamming into surfacing whales.” Not only the fishermen had experienced this. “While we were doing research, we had a couple of accidents where either tourists or researchers were motoring along and a whale surfaced pointblank, unannounced, and you hit the dumb thing,” the scientist says. “Oftentimes the whale flinched — kicked like a horse would kick. People got wet. Boats were damaged. We had die floorboards in one of our boats cracked once by a similar type of event. So it was a very real concern.”

At the same time, he and Jones heard the reports of friendly behavior. Shortly after their arrival at the lagoon in 1978, they too experienced it, although in the beginning it was rare. “We went out and offered ourselves up day after day after day with no results,” Swartz recalls. “We kept records of all that in our daily logs.” When a whale did initiate friendly contact, “it was a wonderful, surprising, spectacular occurrence: to have wildlife turn around and show an interest in you, as opposed to the opposite.”

As the years passed, however, the phenomenon became more and more commonplace, Swartz says. “In 1982, just about anybody who came down there and wanted to pet a whale had an opportunity to do so, usually more than one.” For some of the researchers, the behavior even became a nuisance. “We inevitably had divers over the side or we were doing plankton tows or different types of oceanographic work. And the last thing you wanted was for some whale to come cruising along and get tangled up in your gear. There were times when we had to stop what we were doing and cater to this beast that wanted to play with us for a while.” Swartz remembers “times when we were busy and we would pull everything out of the water and try to extinguish the behavior by ignoring the animals. Sometimes they’d still persist and we would have to motor over to shallow water so they couldn’t get to us.”

Jim Sumich’s work in the lagoon never required that he dodge the friendly overtures. Sumich says when he heard the first reports of them in 1976, it struck him that the phenomenon might enable him to “work with these animals just as if they were captive animals—but without restraints, without captivity, without any of the cost associated with all that.” Early in 1978 he thus headed down to San Ignacio filled with ambition and high hopes.

The hopes crumbled as the whales avoided him and his assistants day after day for two and a half weeks. “I was horrified,” Sumich recalls. “We were packing up and taking down our camp in complete defeat. I was writing off my Ph.D. I’d blown the whole thing.” Then it started raining hard, and while stranded at the lagoon for 11 more days, Sumich’s team started being approached by the whales. “So the first thing we learned is that there is some seasonality to this.” If you try to get close to the newborn whales in late January and early February, “the calves are just too young, and the moms are very protective,” Sumich says. Later in the season, the cows appear to guide their babies toward the boats filled with humans.

Sumich returned to the lagoon for three more seasons and he says his skill at interacting with the whales increased, but those interactions have also been fraught with frustrations. To collect the respirations, he or his young helpers hold meteorological balloons over the blowholes of animals who approach the boats to socialize. Properly positioned, the balloons inflate when the whales expel their air. Sumich says some of the calves tolerate these ministrations, but others don’t cooperate. Still others seem almost to toy with the researchers. “You sit there with the balloon on the blowhole, and you sit there and sit there and sit there, and they just won’t blow,” he says. “Then they swim off five feet, blow, get a breath, then come back into position. We’ve spent days doing this.”

By 1983, he had nonetheless collected enough data to construct a theoretical model of the gray whales’ annual energy needs, the centerpiece of a Ph.D. dissertation. He says the result of his complex calculations confounded him. As amazing as it seems, “It looks as if the calves are probably about 80 percent efficient at converting what the/re getting from their mothers to more of themselves. That’s pretty high for a young mammal. And when you put all the numbers together, it looks like average-sized females have absolutely no problem making this round-trip migration, coming south pregnant, giving birth, going back, and fasting the whole time.” In fact, Sumich has come to believe that some of the biggest females could make two migrations without eating “and still have fuel in the tank,” though small adult females probably have to do some feeding on the northbound trip.

To refine his model, Sumich has continued to make breath-collecting expeditions to San Ignacio Lagoon. He was planning to return last winter, when Sea World was called upon to rescue the baby whale floundering off the coast of Marina del Rey. Exhausted and near-comatose, that animal arrived at the marine park January 11. As soon as she had rallied, Sumich got permission from the park to use her as a research subject.

I tagged along one Friday morning in mid-March as Sumich and two students made their way to the new Shamu Backstage pool. The baby whale, dubbed J.J., had displaced the killer whales from it just a few weeks before. Sumich confessed that when this move occurred, he’d worried that it might spell the end of his work with her. In the huge pool, J.J. could choose to shun him and his helpers. But this had not happened. “She behaves as though she were a friendly,” he told me. “We’re not in a boat. But she comes to us, she rolls over, gets her belly scratched.”

When we stepped onto the submerged ledge at the end of the pool around 7:20 a.m., I detected no sign of the animal. “She’s lying on her side on the bottom,” the professor announced, indicating a spot almost directly below us. Peering over the edge, I could make out her form, right side down, nose tucked into a little niche, looking for all the world like a plastic bath toy lying on the bottom of the tub. “We don’t know if this is common or uncommon,” Sumich said with a shrug. “If they do this in the lagoon, you can’t see it.”

From a plastic picnic cooler, he extracted a sack hill of cream-colored latex weather balloons. With luck, J.J. would blow up 25 of them before her 9:00 a.m. feeding. “She could do that for us in 25 minutes, if she wanted to,” Sumich remarked. In the lagoon, it might take several seasons to get that many samples. Most of the breaths collected in the lagoon had only been held for about 40 seconds, Sumich added, whereas J.J. had been holding her breath for up to four minutes before yielding it to the researchers, further helping to clarify the relationship between breath length and oxygen consumption.

One of his students would have the task of timing J.J.’s breaths this morning, while Sumich and another student concentrated on trying to collect them Rising up from the bottom, the little whale broke the surface and approached us. Shortly after her rescue, park veterinarians cleaned her skin of the so-called whale lice that infest most gray whales. She hadn’t picked up any barnacles. Still I marveled at her complex complexion. I had expected her to look a little like an inner tube: a dull and uniform slate. Instead, certain patches on the young whale’s back were reminiscent of snakeskin, with webs of black and white interplaying over shades of gray as subtle as if they’d been daubed on by a watercolorist.

The whale trained one eye, as big as an orange, upon us. I can’t say I detected any twinkle within it. But she danced around the pool edge, eluding the hovering weather balloons more often than she puffed air into them. “Miners must feel like this,” Sumich muttered. “Running through a lot of gravel to get that nugget.” He persisted, and the cooler slowly filled with stoppered globules that looked more like misshapen cheeses than decorations for a birthday party.

From time to time, Sumich’s successes came at the price of receiving a fine spray of whale snot, which he wiped oft with distaste. Smelling the whale’s breath, on the other hand, never seemed to provoke any reaction. When I asked about this, the scientist said that J.J.’s breath resembled that of animals he had worked with in the lagoon. “When they blow in your face, it’s a little whaley, but it doesn’t make you want to lean over the side of the boat and puke.” He contrasted this with his experience with gray whales feeding off the coast of British Columbia in the summertime. Their breath, reeking of rotten fish, “is so foul it’s just horrible!”

Sumich has come to believe that the seasonal halitosis confirms that the animals are not feeding during their lagoon stay—even though they sometimes look like they’re doing so. Observers have seen gray whales plowing through the lagoon bottoms and scooping up sediment, but analysis has shown it to be devoid of much besides sand, pebbles, and organisms that gray whales don’t eat (such as clams and sponges), Sumich says. He also recalls how during his very first season at the lagoon, “I spent an hour and a half one day watching a female leave her calf and start these rapid swings around and through a school of some kind of small bait fish. She spent hours just zipping through, back and forth. It looked for all the world like feeding behavior. But I don’t know what it means for the animal. I don’t know if they open their mouth. If they do, do they swallow? If they swallow, we don’t know if they get any nutrition out of it.” No one knows what happens to the animals’ digestive system during their long fasts, Sumich points out. “Does the secretory process shut down? If it does, is it going to fire up for one mouthful of anchovy and then shut down again? What we do know is that for most of the bigger adults, they do not need to feed; they’ve got plenty of blubber. So why feed down there on a small-scale sporadic way?”

By 9:00 a.m., Sumich and his assistants had gotten J.J. to inflate 21 bags. These they transferred to a laboratory, where they exposed the contents of each to sensors that measured how much oxygen and carbon dioxide they contained. The individual numbers meant nothing to me, but I checked back with Sumich in mid-June. By then he had collected almost 200 bags of J.J.’s breath. Analysis of their contents had gone a long way to clarify what was known about the patterns of gray-whale oxygen consumption and lung volume, Sumich declared.

Across town, at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, a very different approach to learning about gray whales has been unfolding. Rather than studying a single young whale up close over the course of several months of captivity, Wayne Perryman and his assistants have been looking at photographic images of gray whales swimming in the ocean. These pictures are so clear and sharp they can be used to measure individual animals better than if they were captured and measured on a whaling boat.

Perryman thanks the navy for the technological breakthrough that has enabled this work. He explains that during the height of concerns about dolphin mortality in the mid-1970s, “we needed a way to take incredibly crisp pictures of dolphin schools to count the animals.” One day Perryman discussed this problem with some of the photographic experts at the Miramar Naval Air Station. They told him about the cameras used by the navy for low-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance. “They're very, very expensive —about $100,000 a copy,” Perryman says. 'They're also built to fit into one particular type of aircraft. When the navy later replaces that aircraft with something newer, the cameras can’t be reused. At the time he had this conversation, Perryman learned that millions of dollars’ worth of cameras built for discontinued Phantoms were headed for the Dumpster.

He was able to rescue them and put them to use. “The magic about these cameras is that they're built to collect images of incredible clarity from an aircraft that’s screaming along at high speeds and low altitude," he explains. Not only do they incorporate superior lenses, but the cameras also can be set for a certain flight speed and altitude. They then move the film at the same speed the ground is going by. “So whenever you take an image, it’s as if the aircraft is standing still.”

Perryman says it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the reconnaissance cameras were aimed in any consistent manner at gray whales. Since then, they’ve captured a number of images of gray-whale babies born in the course of the southbound migration, and Perryman says these images have helped to confirm previous estimates of how big the babies are at birth. He adds that, in general, the photos constitute “one more clue into the condition of the animals.” Besides the aerial studies, Perryman is working on research related to one of the more baffling parts of the gray-whale migration cycle: the northbound journey made by cows and calves It’s clear that these pairs start disappearing from the waters off Baja sometime around late March. Where they are when they pass by San Diego remains a mystery, but around 1980, according to Perryman, someone discovered where they go once they pass the Channel Islands. “ They come in to the coastline just north of Goleta, and from there, up the rest of the coast, they migrate almost in the surf line, right up against the beach. I mean, you can hit them with a potato. So they’re very easy to count.”

Researchers conducted a census of the cow-calf pairs there in 1980 and 1981, according to Perryman. About ten years later, Russian observers reported a drop in the gray-whale pregnancy rate. “We were concerned enough that we decided to do some counts of northbound cows and calves and compare them with the data that was collected back in the early ’80s,” Perryman says. So in 1994 he and a crew of three assistants drove up to Point Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle, and set up camp.

Working out of an old Airstream trailer, they took shifts counting the pairs 12 hours a day, six days a week. Perryman says they returned in the spring of 1995 and 19%, “and the study probably would have ended then, if the results hadn’t been so strange.” In ’94 and ’96, the numbers they got for northbound cows and calves more or less matched those obtained in 1980 and ‘81. “But in 1995, we saw a 40 percent drop in calf production.”

So Perryman and his team returned to Piedras Blancas last March. From the vantage point there, it’s easy to reflect upon why the mothers and calves swim so close to the beach. Perryman and others have come to think that the sound of the surf provides auditory camouflage. “I’ve watched cow-calf pairs when there are killer whales around, and they get right up in the rocks,” Perryman says. “ They stop swimming, and they just sink down. When they breathe, they come straight up, but you don’t even hear the blow. It’s obvious they’re hiding. So maybe the reason they migrate along the shore like that is for protection.” This spring the team logged some 700 hours of whale-census work, and when they totaled all the numbers at the end of May, they discovered that they’d counted the highest number of pairs ever, 501. So a two-year cycle of high and low birth rates seems unlikely. Instead, Perryman says he suspects that “maybe 1995 was just a bad year for some strange reason.”

Piedras Blancas has also been the setting for some interesting investigation into the whales’ nighttime swimming speeds. Perryman explains that up until 1993, “we always assumed that the day and night migration rates were the same.” All estimates of the whales’ overall population size have been based on that assumption. But how could you test it? How could you count the gray whales passing by in the night?

Once again, the navy provided a solution, Perryman says. “They’ve been nice enough to loan us some instruments that they use for targeting.” Called “thermal imagers,” these instruments can detect extremely small differences in temperature down to a tenth of a degree centigrade, out to miles away. Although they can’t detect the whales themselves underwater, the imagers can “see” the animals’ breaths up to four miles away. Three years of using this equipment to measure the swimming speeds of northbound cow-calf pairs at Piedras Blancas has revealed no difference in their day- and nighttime swimming passage rates, Perryman says. However, studies in the fall of the southbound migration have yielded a surprise. The migratory wave that’s dominated by males and sexually receptive females appears to move faster after dark. “It looks like there’s more partying going on in the daytime,” Perryman says. “They’re milling. There’s sexual activity. They tend to aggregate at points of land. Whereas at night, they cruise.” This is important, he says, because it suggests that previous estimates of abundance are off. “We probably have to ratchet them up a bit.”

The question of just how many gray whales there are now in the world carries some interesting ramifications. Perryman points out that some observers believe the animals are reaching “carrying capacity”—that is, the maximum number that their environment can support. If so, what happens then? “There are a lot of theories,” Perryman says. “Juvenile mortality should go up. Reproduction should go down. Those are the kinds of things we would expect, but we’ve never seen it happen before. So there are some pretty exciting questions to ask. It's a real interesting time to be looking at the species.”

Questions also continue to surround the whales’ “friendly” behavior. To get more insight into that phenomenon, I traveled to San Ignacio lagoon at the end of this past February. I went with Baja Discovery, a local outfitter that’s been taking tourists to the lagoon for more than 20 years. Today the journey still is not a simple one. From a hotel in Old Town, we went by bus to Tijuana airport, where we climbed aboard a C-47 built in the mid- 1940s. In this we flew south for about three hours. Then we landed on a scabrous strip of asphalt laid like a dark Band-Aid on the ravaged surface of the desert. After a quick stop in the town of San Ignacio, we climbed into vans for the journey to the lagoon. Although it’s located only 40 miles outside the town, the drive took two and a half hours over a rutted, twisting road that seemed to exhale dust at the sound of our approach.

When we reached the water’s edge, tedium evaporated. It’s hard to resist comparing San Diego Bay with this Mexican body of water. San Ignacio is roughly twice as big, but not even a road has been built around the lagoon. It’s easy to conjure up the ghosts of the whalers who toiled here 135 years ago; the shoreline hasn’t changed since then. And the vaporous presence of the whales is even more tangible. When we climbed into the 22-foot pangas and headed for our campsite, I saw more whale spouts in the first ten minutes of that boat ride than I’d seen in 23 years of living in Southern California.

We disembarked at a spit of land called Rocky Point, and though the sun was sinking, the spectacle continued. From every direction in the watery landscape, so many steamy bursts exploded that I felt like I was in some volcanic country. That night in my tent I realized that I could hear the whales breathing. They sounded like snorkelers.

Over the next three days, our group made five forays onto the water. We traveled in three pangas — six tourists, a guide, and a driver in each boat. Every time we set out, I felt a sense of dread that the whales would decide to steer clear of us. Lagoon veterans say this sometimes happens, that all the whales aren’t friendly all the time. As we putted along, a fragment from my child-hood fishing days came back to me: the memory of how long a time it’s possible for nothing to happen out on the water, even when you’re filled with expectancy.

On this trip, however, some whale always shattered the monotony. It happened in different ways. Once or twice, a mother-and -calf pair swam up to us without preamble, inviting petting like domesticated creatures. More often the whales would approach us but maintain some distance, as if assessing something. The guides advised that splashing the water and calling seemed to attract the animals. So some of us splashed like maniacs. We cried out in the cooing voices that mothers use when their babies are just learning to walk. We tapped the bottom of the pangas. We sang.

Some whales looked upon this with a fishy eye and glided away. But others seemed won over, slipping within the grasp of our fingers. We would stroke their rubbery skin and note what can be seen only when one is very close to a gray whale: the single hairs studded here and there on the huge bodies, as if an afterthought of their mammalian status. Sometimes a mother whale would come at the boat broadside, then dive just deep enough to clear the bottom, the enormity of her body glimmering below both sides of the vessel. Once when this happened I screamed at the sight of something white and ghostly rising up; only at the surface was it revealed to be a three-foot-wide blast of bubbles. Sometimes the adults yielded to our touch. But most often we petted the babies. One youngster stayed with our three boats for a good half hour, sweeping each of us in turn into a frenzy of noisy, adrenaline-soaked interplay. When the young whale finally moved on, the mood in my panga was serene, relaxed, postcoital. Everyone was smiling, though they seemed unconscious that they were doing so.

Back at the camp, people in the group struggled to put into words why the encounters felt so moving. Most often they mentioned the fact that these wild animals were making the cross-species leap for no obvious reason, such as food. On the animals’ enigmatic countenances, many read curiosity and even pleasure.

I know of no scientist who’s tried to probe what lies behind the whales' “friendly" behavior. But there is a piece of folk wisdom that purports to explain it. According to that notion, the first friendly whale was Gigi, the well-known former resident of Sea World who was released back into the sea off San Diego in March of 1972. Though a radio transmitter attached to her back ceased to function after less than two months, the whale might have survived, some people believe. Gigi, moreover, had cause to believe that humans were benign, and for that reason she might have approached them in the lagoon one day. After that, she might have somehow spread the word to other gray whales, who passed it on in turn.

As appealing as this notion is, Ray Gilmore rejected it early on for a convincing reason. In a 1976 article published in the L.A. County Natural History Museum’s magazine, Terra, Gilmore pointed out that photos of the first friendly lagoon whale revealed it to have only two throat-folds, whereas Gigi had had three. Concluded Gilmore, “Gray whales have either two or three such folds at birth which are maintained into adulthood. It is doubtful that the number changes during growth.”

Detailed research into the friendly behavior apparently ran into a political roadblock in the early 1980s. Sources lay the blame on a Mexican doctoral candidate at the University of Washington who was denied his Ph.D. “He went home and became just virulently anti-American,” one observer says, adding that this man decided that gray whales were going to be his personal research arena. “He got a job with PFSCA, the fisheries organization that regulated all the research permits.” Beginning about 1982, projects began being turned down. “Or he had this little pocket veto trick. If a start date had been proposed for, say, January 5, he would hold it until January 1 and then say okay. Field seasons take a year to plan and fund and organize. But he would rail at these damned Americans who wouldn’t follow through on the research permits that they got.”

The stalemate ended about two years ago when “the Mexican marine mammal society rebelled and drummed this person out,” according to an American researcher. “Now the whole permit process has been restructured.” Scientific work at the lagoon has recommenced, with one of the major efforts being conducted by a marine biologist from the La Paz campus of the Autonomous University of Baja California. This man, Jorge Urban, spent the spring of both 1996 and 1997 in the lagoon, along with a team of researchers, and they hope to return for several more years. They’ve been counting whales, and they also have been photographing whales who engage in friendly behavior. Methods of identifying individual gray whales (from the shape of the “knuckles” on their backs) are being developed. So it may soon be possible to answer one of the most basic questions: whether only a few individuals act friendly but get a lot of press out of it (as one skeptical marine biologist suggested to me) or whether (as other observers believe) the incidence is increasing with every season.

Jim Sumich is looking forward to seeing the data. In the meantime, he says his sense is that the phenomenon is growing. Not only has it become commonplace in San Ignacio Lagoon, but visitors to Scammon’s Lagoon and Magdalena Bay have begun having friendly contacts. Even along the southbound migration route off San Diego, “we’re getting occasional reports of people having what can only be described as the same kinds of encounters,” the professor says. Last year he talked to two small-boat owners who were fishing off Point Loma when gray whales approached and allowed themselves to be petted.

The question of why the change in whale-human interactions has occurred may take longer to answer, Sumich suggests. He says people have tended to focus on the whales’ behavior. But the human behavior also has changed. For a friendly encounter to occur, a human being has to be receptive to it, Sumich points out. You can’t attack the whales; you can’t run away from them.

Having a friendly contact with a whale is “kind of like falling in love,” Sumich muses. “You’ve got to let your guard down.” Maybe nothing about the whales has changed in 100 years, he suggests. “Maybe this would have happened 100 years ago, if you had just gotten into a boat in the lagoon and sat there. I don’t know.” Sumich smiles. “But there’s a fantastic animal-behavior-based Ph.D. study for someone.”

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