Whales have been losing their fear of humans
It was not by chance that she was nicknamed "The Incredible Grace." In the waters of Laguna de San Ignacio, on the West Coast of Mexico, the gray whale emerged next to the research boat and began to push it like a rubber duck livro de perícia ambiental.
The female, with a distinctive scar, was the friendliest whale scientist Steven Swartz found. The year was 1997, and Swartz had arrived in the region of Baja Mexico months before to study these animals. "She stuck her head in the boat and almost got him up," recalls the scientist, adding, however, that the whale let the researchers caress it.
At that time, seeing a whale having such human-friendly behavior was rare, according to Swartz. For obvious reasons, cetaceans had learned to fear man - whaling boats had been common for decades. Grace was an exception to the rule.
In 1982, however, friendly encounters were already much more common, and so remain to this day. Swartz estimates that 80% to 90% of the whales he has studied did not seem to be bothered by the presence of the research boats. And some feel comfortable enough to even follow the boats.
Prohibition of whaling in various parts of the world has led whale sharks to give way to more and more tourist boats. The fear that some whales associated with humans gave way to curiosity. But as we learn more about whales and dolphins, some researchers have begun to ask a new question: is whale watching as harmless as it sounds?
The experience with "Incredible Grace" may have been the first friendly in Laguna Santo Ignacio documented by a scientist, but locals had already gone through similar interactions. Known locally as "the chosen one", the fisherman Don Pachico Mayoral has his own story of encounter.
In the winter of 1972, he and a colleague were fishing in their boat when a gray whale twice as large as the vessel appeared. Fearing for their lives, they tried to escape. Pachico had reasons to worry. In centuries of hunting, gray whales had earned the nickname "demonic" because of the habit of attacking their pursuers. Sometimes the hunters turned hunting.
The gray whale was once considered "demonic"
Every time Pachico changed the direction of the boat, the whale followed them. The two men were prepared for the worst. But something surprising happened: leaning lightly on the boat, the gray beast lifted its head from the water, right next to the fisherman. With a little hesitation, he touched the animal's head, which instead of moving away was even closer to the boat, with the encouragement of intimacy. The experience has forever changed the attitudes of local people to whales.
"We lost Pachico a few years ago, but his family is still here, taking care of his ecotourism business," says Swartz. It is one of many "whale-friendly" businesses in the area. Whales are now chased by cameras, not harpoons.
The problem is whether the whales think humans have lost their reputation. When whale watching began in Baja Mexico in the 1970s, there were no rules. Sometimes the animals were chased by high-speed boats filled with tourists. Today, however, the activity is strictly controlled. This whale habitat is part of a biological reserve and is listed by Unesco - the United Nations body for culture - as a world heritage site.
Read also: Why whaling is still allowed
There's a kind of "whale sheriff" in the lagoon, making sure there are not many boats in the water at the same time. The boats must also stay in specific zones and respect the time limit of 90 minutes. And they can not get too close to whales. The region is an example of well-regulated whale tourism.
However, there are still many places around the world where the observation of mammals does not count with the same regulation, or even with any regulation.