Gray whale baleen
Early whale hunters saw spouts over the dunes before they found the bay entrance, but in early winter of 1857, Charles Melville Scammons led the first two whaling ships into Laguna Ojo de Liebre on Baja’s Pacific coast. There the two ships killed some 20 gray whale cows for oil and baleen, the comblike upper jaw they use to filter out small creatures they eat. Baleen, processed, was called whalebone and was used to make umbrella ribs and ladies' corsets. Whalers hunted the lagoon the following winter with a larger fleet and harvested nearly 200 cows — 7,000 barrels of oil. Each year whalers came and found fewer whales calving until, within a decade and a half of the first gray whale killed in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, it was fished out. Whalers did not return. Whales did and now, almost 160 years since that first harpoon struck whale flesh in the lagoon, they are hunted by tourists.
Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon) is now a destination for whale-watchers. Court battles against industrial waste and too much tourism worked; the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The lagoon is regulated during calving season. The operators position the boats and sit to allow whales to approach. Some whales push their calves close to the skiffs and allow petting by whale watchers.
The gray whales’ migration takes them from Alaska and the Bering Sea to Baja Sur, a round-trip of up to 13,000 miles. As they feed mostly by disrupting the bottom with their snouts and filtering out small creatures with their baleen, gray whales tend to stay in coastal waters and can be spotted from shore. The local gray whale watching season starts mid-December and runs through mid-April. Later, in the summer, the big blue whales come through, but for San Diego’s whale watch fleet, the gray is their darling.
Scripps' Birch Aquarium naturalists provide professional narration aboard Flagship Cruises’ educational trips that begin Saturday, December 17 and run through mid-April.