Humpback Whales

 Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Winter is a special time of the year. We get the wind that brings joy to many, and we get some special visitors: whales! From the ones in our area, the most common and acrobatic are humpback whales.

Humpbacks are baleen whales, meaning they don’t have teeth, but keratine plates, packed tight together forming a comb-like structure. The baleen works like a giant sieve for filtering small prey.

Found worldwide, in the Northern Hemisphere, they migrate every year between their high-latitude summer feeding grounds to their low-latitude breeding grounds, where they mate and calve during the winter. Adult males measure between 11.5-15m (37.5-49ft) and females are usually a bit bigger, 12-16m (39-52ft). They are easy to distinguish from other whales by their long flippers and their dorsal fin on top of a distinctive hump. They are more active on the surface than any other whale, performing beautiful acrobatics like breaching, and slapping their pectoral fins and tails (lobtailing).

The ones visiting us yearly breed around Cabo area and migrate north for the summer, to Canada or north of the US. They mate between December and March, the pregnant females will return after around 11 months to give birth. Humpbacks usually don´t feed here, so they must feed intensively in the summer. They feed on small fish like anchovies, herring, or sardines, and krill. Sometimes humpbacks can be seen opportunistic feeding in Baja, like on the big sardine balls of the Pacific, who can resist a good snack?

Another special thing about humpback whales is their songs. Females and males produce a wide variety of vocalizations, but only males sing. They create the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom.

Humpback whales can be identified by the unique patterns on the underside of their flukes and the serrations on the edges. Photographing a whale fluke, the individual can be recognized. If you take a good photo of underneath the whale tale, you can send it to, where they will try to find a match to your photo. This way, through citizen science, we can see their movement through different years, which is pretty cool! 

Humpbacks are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, after recovering from the brink of extinction from the whaling times. They are certainly very special creatures and seeing them in our bay every year brings us lots of joy! María Rodriguez-Salinas

Spinner Dolphins

Spinner dolphins. One of the last new encounters I really enjoyed, was a playful pod of Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris). It was the first time I ever saw these animals, and now it’s on my top list and I’m looking forward to seeing them again! They are super fun creatures, and the joy and energy they radiate is contagious. Surrounding our boat and swimming with us, spinning and making lots of noise, they filled us up with their joy and put a big smile on our faces.

Locally known as Tornillos (screws), they get their name from their spectacular acrobatic and aerial behavior. They leap out from the water into the air 3 meters (around 9 feet) and spin around their longitudinal axis repeatedly. They can turn up to 7 times before they fall back into the water! They seem to become especially acrobatic after they change from resting behavior to foraging. It’s believed these behaviors are primarily for acoustic signaling or communication, but can also be a way to remove ectoparasites, such as remoras, or courtship behavior.

They inhabit tropical and sub-tropical waters worldwide, with 4 different subspecies, very different from each other in form and color pattern. They are probably one of the most abundant dolphins in the world. Spinner dolphins are relatively small compared with other species. The species’ name, longirostris, is Latin for “long beak,” referring to their elongated rostrum.

Individual dolphins can be identified by their unique dorsal fins. Researchers take photographs of the dolphins’ dorsal fins and then match the shape, nicks, and notches in each fin to a catalog of known individuals.

Spinner dolphins feed at night on species including small fish, shrimp, and squid, diving sometimes more than 600m (1900 ft) to find food. They rest during the day normally, all together in a tight formation.

They are listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List, but the eastern subspecies, which is the one in Baja, is listed as Vulnerable.

Next time you are out in the sea, if you happen to find some very playful dolphins, a bit smaller and with a long beak, breaching, and spinning non-stop, chances are you found them! María Rodriguez-Salinas,

Coral Bleaching

 For the first time, November has been declared Coral Bleaching Awareness Month. This year, coral reefs worldwide are facing a particularly hard one, mainly due to El Niño meteorological phenomenon. During El Niño, the Pacific Ocean is much warmer, affecting global weather patterns. You probably have noticed the water in the bay is much warmer compared to other years. Though El Niño is a natural phenomenon, on a warmer planet it can have stronger effects.

But how does coral bleaching relate? Bleaching is a stress response caused by different factors, one of them is an increase in water temperature. Corals live in symbiosis with a unicellular photosynthetic organism known as zooxanthella. Zooxanthellae are dinoflagellates from the genus Symbiodinium that live within the coral tissue. In this intimate relationship, zooxanthellae contribute to corals’ nutrition, providing them with the products of photosynthesis. In exchange, they get protection and nutrients. Zooxanthellae can provide up to 90 % of the corals´ energy needs and without them, their growth would be too slow to create reef structures. Because of their photosynthetic pigments, Zooxanthellae are also responsible for the corals´ colors.

Under environmental stress, corals expel their partners. Without them, they lose their color, and we see their white skeletal structure through their transparent tissues. Besides losing their color, corals lose their main energy source. If the conditions go back to normal soon, zooxanthellae return, and corals recover. If the stress lasts too long, the corals starve to death.

Coral bleaching has complex causes, climate change is a main contributor to it. Healthier reefs have better chances to survive. Water quality is vital for coral reefs’ health: less pollution, less trash in the ocean, reef-safe sun protection, reducing CO2 emissions, fishing regulations to ensure herbivores (parrotfish, surgeon fish…) can control algae growth… All of these and more,  are necessary actions to preserve our reefs, not just because it would be a crime to lose their beauty, but because they have vital functions in our ocean: if reefs go, we go.

More on this coral bleaching awareness month here. María Rodriguez-Salinas, Instagram: maria_salinas_scuba

Mobula Munkiana

It is that time of the year again! Every spring we have a very special gathering in our front yard: thousands of rays aggregate in a breathtaking spectacle. They are Munk´s pygmy devil ray or Mobula munkiana, locals know them as “tortillas”, because the sound they make when jumping out of the water, reminds the clapping of hands produced while making tortillas.

They are cartilaginous fish, related to sharks, and they inhabit the Eastern Pacific Ocean, from Mexico to Peru. They reach a maximum disc length of 4.2 ft (130 cm), with an average of 3 ft (100cm). They are filter feeders, and they follow the zooplankton blooms, moving around the Baja peninsula with them. This time of the year, they can be seen in our area, when the conditions are ideal for feeding and reproduction. All around the bay, they can be seen swimming gracefully in the water, hundreds of them together, moving their fins like birds flying, it is truly nature´s wonder. But they can also be seen out of the water: moving their wings and gaining enough momentum to propel themselves in acrobatic jumps, sometimes many of them at the same time. Nobody knows exactly why they jump, there are different theories, but I like thinking it is just pure joy.

For years they were fished till they were put in severe danger of extinction. They are very sensitive to overfishing because they have slow reproductive strategies, like many other cartilaginous fishes. They are aplacental viviparous and they only give birth to one pup, after a gestation period of 12 months, so it takes them a long time to recover after the removal of many individuals. Now they are protected, and we have seen increasing numbers, but they are still listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. One of their main threats is bycatch from coastal fishing nets. Swimming with them is a great attraction for ecotourism, making them way more valuable alive than dead and favoring conservation efforts.

Common Dolphin

Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are the most common cetacean in the world, they are found worldwide, through tropical and temperate waters, nearshore and offshore. Despite their name, they are not the dolphin we have in mind as the “classic dolphin”, being this one the bottlenose dolphin, popular in media or aquariums. Common dolphins have a well-defined long beak, a black-grey back, and a dark patch around the eye, they can be easily recognized by a pale to tan hourglass or crisscross pattern on the sides of their bodies.

They form large groups for hunting and socializing, it is not rare to see hundreds of them in a group. Sometimes, they can form bigger groups called “super pods”, gathering thousands of individuals. They are very playful when they swim in groups and enjoy breaching and playing with waves, they are known for swimming along with boats, either racing at the front or playing at the wake that is formed behind.

Because of their wide distribution, they have a varied diet, feeding on schooling fish like anchovies and sardines, among other species, and enjoy eating squid too. They have been recorded to make dives up to 200 meters (660 ft) deep.

Recently we had big groups of common dolphins in the bay, and what is even better: there were many babies with them! Given that newborn calves measure 7 to 100cm (2.3 to 3.3 ft) I would say these babies were recently born, I had never seen such

Paper Nautilus or Argonaut

Today I want to introduce you to one of the most fascinating marine creatures. These beautiful and delicate shells you see, didn´t belong to a snail or a crab, they belonged to an octopus, a female octopus to be more precise.

Paper nautiluses or argonauts are a group of pelagic octopuses. Unlike their ground dwelling cousins, they spend their lives drifting in the water column, so they evolved in clever ways to adapt to this environment. Argonauts exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism in size, lifespan and features. Females can grow up to 30 cm (12 inches), with their shells while males rarely reach more than 2cm (0.8 inches). Males only mate once in their short lifetime, but females can reproduce many times during their lives. Females have been known since ancient times, because of a unique characteristic, while males were only described in the late 19th century.

The most particular feature of these animals belongs to females too: they have two special tentacles that secrete calcite. After mating, they start producing a delicate papery shell, lay their eggs inside it and get cozy themselves. They capture air at the surface and then seal it inside the shell, using it for buoyancy control, like a hot air balloon. They can control the size of the air bubble to keep their position in the water column. This way they travel, following the current accompanied by their eggs without expending energy.

A paper nautilus’ shell is a rare finding, if you are lucky to find one, treat it carefully, it’s a little and delicate treasure, a part of a creature with a unique life story!

Blue Whale

Just a few days ago we had an incredible encounter: while out on a boat, we found not one, but two blue whales in our bay. We were observing a humpback whale when suddenly, we heard a very loud blow close to our boat: there it was, a gigantic creature just at our doorstep. The sound of a blue whale´s breath is incredible, it is so loud it gets inside your chest, no doubt a powerful feeling to hear one close by.

Blue whales are the largest animal known to have ever existed. They can live up to 80 or 90 years and reach a maximum length of 30m (98 ft) and weigh up to 200 tons. Their heart is the size of a car! They perform long migrations, traveling from their summer feeding grounds in the polar regions to their winter breeding grounds in waters near the tropics.

Despite their size, much of their life story remains a mystery. They are generally solitary or gather in small groups, mothers with their calves being the most common aggregation. They migrate during winter and spring to the Gulf of California for feeding and breeding. In Loreto area, females with their newborn calves have been observed.

They are baleen whales, meaning they do not have teeth, but baleen plates that they use to filter their food. Their diet consists almost exclusively of krill. Their stomach can hold one ton of krill and they need to eat about 4 tons of krill each day.

Blue whales produce some of the loudest and lowest frequency vocalizations in the animal kingdom, and their inner ears appear well adapted for detecting low-frequency sounds. They emit a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and it’s thought that, in good conditions, blue whales can hear each other up to 1000 miles away. Scientists think they use these vocalizations not only to communicate but, along with their excellent hearing, to sonar-navigate the lightless ocean depths.

Like other whale species, they were abundant in nearly all the Earth´s oceans, until the 19th century, when they were hunted almost to extinction. The International Whaling Commission banned blue whale hunting in 1966, but they’ve managed only a minor recovery since then. Today they are listed as Endangered and face man-made threats such as ship strikes, pollution, ocean noise, and climate change.

Gray Whale

This time of the year we receive one of the most popular visitors of the Baja Peninsula: gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Every winter, gray whales embark on an epic trip from their summer home in Alaska´s waters to the warm waters of Baja California´s lagoons. This is one of the greatest migrations in the animal kingdom, a round-trip of around 20000 km (12000 miles), an epic journey full of dangers. This week I would like to share their story, because it is one of hope, one that shows us that if we act soon, there is still time for life to bounce back.

During the mid-1800s and early 1900s, gray whales were slaughtered for their meat and fat to almost extinction. In their nursing lagoons of Baja California, they were easy prey. Fishermen called them “devil fish” because when losing their calves to whalers, the mothers would destroy their boats. There was an open war between whales and humans, one that whales were losing.

Finally, gray whales became internationally protected in 1947. After almost disappearing, the population rebounded, going back to almost pre-whaling numbers.

The war was over and, after decades, the whales changed the way they saw humans: in San Ignacio, gray whales started approaching fishermen’s boats, not to attack them, but to greet them. The whales seemed to want people around and even allowed fishermen to pet them. Such a special interaction brought ecotourism to the fishing villages, which are visited every year by people from all over the world.

Today, gray whales and people are intimately connected, they are part of the local culture and are highly regarded, being one of the most iconic species in Baja California.

Whale Sharks

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus), 0% whale and 100% shark, whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, reaching up to 18m (60 ft). Primarily pelagic, they can be found in both coastal and oceanic habitats. They lack proper teeth having only tiny ones and filter pads in their gills. They are filter feeders, one of only three known filter-feeding shark species (along with the basking shark and the megamouth shark). They feed on plankton and other small animals like baitfish and squid. They swallow water either by opening their mouth and swimming forward or by active suction, opening and closing their mouth. The water is then expelled through the gills, which filter the food. A juvenile whale shark is estimated to eat 21 kg (46 pounds) of plankton per day.

Whale sharks are found in tropical areas around the world, including the warm waters of Mexico from the Sea of Cortez to the eastern Mexican coast in the Caribbean. They are generally solitary animals but sometimes gather in large groups to take advantage of good feeding opportunities.

They are gray or gray-blue with a beautiful pattern of white lines and dots. This pattern is unique to each individual, like a fingerprint, and can be used for identification. In La Paz area they gather from November to April to feed in the plankton-rich waters of the Bay. Despite their enormous size, we still don´t know much about these animals, and their growth, longevity, and reproduction are poorly understood. They are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Long-spine Porcupinefish

This smiley face, pokemon-looking fish is one of the porcupinefishes species we can find in our area. Called sometimes pufferfish, they are related but belong to a different family than the proper puffers. Both families are morphologically similar, but porcupine fish have spines that cover their bodies.

They are found in temperate and tropical seas worldwide, usually close to shore. If you have ever been snorkeling or even just walking on the beach in La Ventana, I am pretty sure you have seen one! They have big round eyes on the sides of their rounded head, with a wide frontal mouth typically left open. Their teeth are fused together, creating a strong, beak-like mouth capable of cracking the shells of snails, sea urchins, and hermit crabs that make their diet.

If they feel threatened, they can inflate their bodies by swallowing water, ballooning up to three times their normal size. The spines that cover their bodies radiate then outwards, giving them another defense mechanism. They only recur to this “puffing” ploy when desperate, as they lose mobility when inflated, they normally rather just hide from predators swimming into a crevice. When approached by snorkelers and divers they usually move slowly away looking for a hideout.

Some porcupinefishes are poisonous, having a substance called tetrodotoxin in their internal organs. This deadly neurotoxin is 1200 times more toxic than cyanide. As a result of all these defense mechanisms, porcupine fish don´t have many predators, but adults can be preyed upon by sharks and orcas. Sea lions and dolphins sometimes have been seen playing with an unfortunate inflated porcupine fish, as if it were a beach ball.

In some places, they are eaten as a delicacy and the South Sea islanders once used the spiked skins of porcupinefishes as helmets.