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Baja California Information Pages
Tales of Baja California

    A Whale of a Tale

Fabian Rousset  

DEVIL FISH - a reference to the Califonia Gray Whale, coined by early whalers.

- Whaling in Baja California -

In the late 1800's whaling was on the decline, with few "good" whales left for slaughter. Captain Scammon however, found a veritable jackpot, the breeding grounds of the California Gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon, and the surrounding lagoons on the Pacific side of the Baja California Peninsula.

The warm water and high salinity bathed the newborn calves and kept the inexperienced, blubber-deficient newborns bouyant. Though the Gray Whale was not the best whale commercially, yielding comparatively few barrels of oil, it would have to do in face of the alternative for the captain: to become a merchant mariner.

The Gray Whales however were not such an easy target as other whales they had encountered, which basically rolled over and gave up when harpooned. The Gray Whale, when harpooned, would lash violently against the boats, overturning them, bashing them to bits and leaving the cowering whalers to drown with broken arms and legs. The whale soon earned a name for itself, the Devil Fish.

Another curious and noble thing that the whales would do, would be to protect their young at all costs, even death. The whalers soon learned of this unfortunate(?) trait and capitalized on it by rounding the calves away from their mothers toward shallow water, where the mother could be harpooned from the safety of the beach. The whalers became so proficient at this technique that the whales all but went extinct. Luckily the price of the whale oil was dropping, and the whole operation became less and less profitable.

Now the whales are under protection in the United States by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. Under this protection the whales have increased their numbers to about 20,000 individuals, thereby becoming the best success story of the Acts protecting them. This increase in numbers has also created a huge tourist market in Baja California, in a lagoon now called Scammons Lagoon, where the whales visit like clockwork for the mating and breeding every year during the winter. The whole operation in the lagoon is heavily protected by Mexican Federales with M16's so that no unauthorized boats or swimmers even touch the water.

- A Modern Tail of the Whale -

A friend of mine, lets call her Michelle, recently went to a site nearby Scammons that is not protected, and with some of her friends went kayaking in order to see the whales more closely, to try and get that whale-human contact connection. One of the kayakers, Mike, who didn't know anything about the Devil Fish, and thought whales were all friendly and our peaceful brothers of the sea, took off from the group to get closer to a cow/calf pair (mother/baby).

As he paddled closer, the other kayakers yelled from the distance to get away, to stay far away from the calf, all to no avail. Oblivious to any danger, he paddled between the cow and calf. A sin no worse than murder to the Gray whale - and punishable by death.

After a bitter breath the mother whale disappeared from the surface only to appear again, but with the kayaker on its back, teetering perilously. Mike, in utter terror, obviously teetered to one side and then fell off the other, losing everything not tied in his boat (along with his bowels).

With the whale between him and his kayak, he tread water at the mercy of the rage of the cow. At that moment, the cow raised her fluke (tail) menacingly 20 feet over Mike's head, wavering the fluke with little drops of lagoon dripping onto Mike's head, like the ultimate Chinese water torture.

Mike, in complete paralysis, tried to keep himself above water. Just the weight of the falling fluke would batter his frail human body to chum; and imagine if the whale felt like adding some of the muscle forces which power the creature with 600 horsepower of force!

The cow let Mike get away with his sin alive, but definitely left Mike a changed man. He decided that he wouldn't kayak anymore on that trip (I think he didn't have any shorts to replace his soiled ones).

Fabian Rousset (

(Received April 30, 1997)

Ed.: Fabian has prepared an informational web site about the California Gray Whale. The site is sponsored by the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara, California, and may be reached at

Contents Page: Copyright 1997-2011 Fabian Rousset