- These extraordinary mammals procreate and rear their calves in the Riviera Nayarit’s warm waters after a long 10,000-km trip from the Arctic.
- Their main motivation for such a long journey is to find a mate; once they mate and the females become pregnant, it takes a year for them to return.
Every year, at the onset of winter, the Riviera Nayarit witnesses an extraordinary event: the arrival of humpback whales that migrate to this region after a long journey of more than 10,000 kilometers from the Arctic. Some procreate and others raise their calves in the warm waters of the Nayarit coast until late March when they are strong enough to travel back north.
“Here they nurse them, take care of them for two months and when the calf is strong and has swimming skills, they begin their return to the north. The calf lives or follows the mother for less than a year, learns to eat very quickly, grows very fast and then it becomes independent,” said Marine Biologist Roberto Moncada, professor at the Instituto Tecnológico México Campus Bahía de Banderas (ITBB) and president of the Marine Mammal Research Group A.C. (Grupo de Investigación de Mamíferos Marinos A.C., or GRIMMA).
In Nayarit, these marine mammals can be easily found in Banderas Bay, Rincón de Guayabitos, and Chacala, as well as further north in San Blas, Isla Isabel National Park, and Islas Marías.
However, ─adds the biologist─, we can say that the humpback whale is a cosmopolitan species, which means that it is in all the seas of the world. In the case of the Pacific, the population is mainly concentrated in California where they feed, but it extends as far as Washington in the United States, Canada and a little further north, to Alaska.
When they migrate south, they weigh between 35 and 40 tons and bring a large reserve of blubber, because once in Mexican waters they will devote all their energy to reproducing, and those that are already pregnant to raising their calves.
“While the females take care of the newborns and teach them to breathe, swim, dive and even jump, the males sing in long, repetitive voices to woo the younger ones and ‘mate’ if possible,” says Moncada.
Although there are no precise figures on the number of humpback whales that arrive each year to this region, it is estimated that the population has increased greatly, to the point that according to GRIMMA data, for every individual that was seen in the year 2000, today five can be seen.
In addition, ECOBAC (Ecology and Conservation of Whales) indicates that the population in the Mexican Pacific is approximately 20 thousand individuals; in a normal year, between 300 and 500 of these marine mammals are registered in the state of Nayarit.
“The population is practically recovered,” said the president of GRIMMA, after the previous century this species was decimated by hunting. In the last century, hunting was industrial, “this was no longer with ‘little boats,’, this was about huge ships, which hauled up the entire whale and took advantage of every bit of it. The population was so decimated that it was estimated to be approximately 3,000 individuals, until it finally stopped being a business and the protection program was put in place.”
Regarding the time the whales stay in the region, the biologist indicates that it is one of the most difficult things to know, because they do not congregate at a particular point, but rather they embark on a sort of “tour.” They may be looking for a mate on Isla Isabel, in the Islas Marías or in Los Cabos, and then move on to Banderas Bay.
“The males, for example, if they don’t find a mate here, they go elsewhere, because they’re very powerful swimmers, so they look for females here and there. On the other hand, whales are very faithful to their feeding areas, so you’ll almost always see the same ones. In their breeding areas they’re not so faithful, they regularly change region and humpback whales have even been seen in Oaxaca and Acapulco Bay.”
The humpback whale in Banderas Bay
There is evidence of the presence of humpback whales in the region since colonial times in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Banderas Bay was known as Humpback Bay thanks to the large number of this species of cetaceans that visited it during the winter.
The first ones to record these marine mammals in the Bay were biologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in the 1970s. At that time the program was directed by Dr. Aguayo, who eventually handed this task over to Dr. Luis Medrano. In 2001, the Instituto Tecnológico México Campus Bahía de Banderas and civil associations such as GRIMMA joined the program.
Thanks to these records and photo-marking techniques, it has been possible to establish how many whales return to this area and how often they do so. Only one has come seven times (once a year) and others have been seen up to three times.
“The whales that came this year are not the same ones that came last year or will come next year; the number varies because the climate changes and the water temperature isn’t always the same. There’s a current, the Urochio, that comes from Asia and goes down through Alaska, continues through Canada, then through California and arrives here with very cold water; that current brings the whales, that’s the cue. And once the current ends, in February or March, the water warms up and that’s the signal for the whales to return north. Nature is like a finely tuned clock,” added biologist Roberto Moncada.
The Riviera Nayarit remains committed to caring for the environment and promoting sustainable tourism by supporting service providers that respect good whale watching practices. It is also important for local and national tourism to follow the recommendations issued by service providers on their boats. All health protocols established by the Ministry of Health of the Federal Government are being followed for whale watching.
The Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Bahía de Banderas Hotel and Motel Association (AHMBB) work tirelessly to jointly promote the region with the support of the Government of the State of Nayarit through its Tourism Promotion Trust (Fiprotur).