Whale watching first started as an organized activity in the 1950s, with shore-based lookouts and boat trips to see migrating California grays just off the coast of California.
By 1970, boatloads of tourists were visiting the whales in their sheltered breeding lagoons to the south in Baja California. The California gray whales are a success story. Numbers had reduced so drastically that by 1946, when the International Whaling Commission was created, the species was completely protected. Now the population has recovered and currently supports a viable whale watching industry all along the California coastline.
Perhaps predictably, gray whales were also the first species for which concerns were expressed with regard to the possibly adverse effects of whale watching. It was 1976, and a scientific paper on gray whales was submitted to the International Whaling Commission. At that stage, the Commission was still rubber-stamping catches of 25,000 whales so, not surprisingly, attention was focused elsewhere.
Since then, the population of California gray whales has increased substantially and there seems no real cause for concern. But to be on the safe side, the Mexican government has regulated whale watching activities and limited the number of permits to local operators. And the ‘friendly’ whales, which seemed to enjoy approaching whale watchers, have changed our attitude to whales the world over.
On a family trip to Baja some years ago, the most memorable part was camping on a windy sand spit and waking up to the sound of gray whale blows just yards away, and watching my children waking up, still cocooned in sleeping bags, moving caterpillar-like towards the shore for a better view.