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Gentle Giants Of the deep blue sea
Fin Whale Encounters in the Sea of Cortés

Story and photos by Carlos Navarro

The ocean is tranquil; only the small ripples
produced by the slow movement of my kayak alters its glassy-calm surface. The closest land is 1,600 feet below me as I sit in my kayak, suspended in the middle of the Sea of Cortés off a tiny volcanic rock named Isla San Pedro Mártir. Suddenly 25 feet away, a big shadow begins to take shape below the surface, followed by a 15-foot plume of exhale and a sound that I'll remember for the rest of my life. Almost immediately, a second spout rockets skyward as enormous arched backs break the surface. Two Fin whales, the second largest animals on earth, explode on the surface, dwarfing both me and my dimunitive kayak.

Fin whales (Balaenopter Physalus) are unique as they are the only mammals who present asymmetrical coloration on their head. The right lower jaw is white, whereas the left one is dark gray. Fin whales are a cosmopolitan species who prefer cold and temperate waters. There are three main populations in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. In the Sea of Cortés, Fin whales are the most abundant of the baleen (or true) whales, especially during winter and spring months. However, there are sightings of this species during all seasons and most months and scientists now believe that there may be a resident population. Records of small calves in all seasons, as well as comparisons between Fin whale vocalizations from the Gulf and those from other parts of the world seem to support this hypothesis, although this needs further study.

The Sea of Cortés contains numerous Fin whale concentrations in the Canal de Ballenas and the Canal de Salsipuedes, Puerto Peñasco and Puerto Libertad, San Pedro Mártir and Turner Islands, the south point of Tiburón Island, the area between San Pedro Nolasco Island and Guaymas and between La Paz Bay and Carmen Island. All these areas are biologically-rich, providing a steady food source for the whales to feed on. It is possible to see Fin whales actively feeding at the surface, rolling on their right side with their mouths wide open, scaring prey with white right lower jaw flashes while engulfing huge volumes of water. As they close their mouths, Fin whales appear like gigantic tadpoles as they remain on the surface expulsing water from their throats, filtering the small fishes and crustaceans that have been trapped in the baleen.

Next time you're out in a boat on the waters of the Sea of Cortés, or just walking along the beach, keep an eye on the horizon and maybe you will be gifted with one of the most exciting encounters nature has to offer.

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