The story about patterns in Nature is a story about order. And, what could be more orderly than a regularly repeating pattern over time? Things like cycles and synchronization. Heartbeats, ocean waves, day and night. And also gray whales.
One of Nature’s really intriguing patterns in time is the annual 12,000 mile round trip migration of some 20,000 gray whales. This journey is one of the longest animal migrations known to man. Every autumn, these 45 foot leviathans leave their summer feeding grounds in the cold arctic waters of the Bering Sea and travel along the North American coast to the Pacific coastal lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. One of the three lagoon complexes that they choose is Scammon’s Lagoon (known to the Mexicans as Laguna Ojo de Liebre). Scammon’s Lagoon and its connecting Laguna Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior Lagoon) are situated near the town of Guerrero Negro about half way down the Baja Peninsula. The lagoon and the town are named after a whaling ship that went down here in 1858, the Guerrero Negro.
The whales meet at Guerrero Negro and the two other Baja lagoons apparently (a human presumption) because the shallow waters make the act of birth, the caring for new born calves , and breeding easy. These lagoons also offer protection of the young from killer whales and sharks.
In addition to the annual pattern of this long journey, there are interesting migration sub-patterns in time within the culture. Wikipedia describes this as follows (paraphrased):
“The first whales to arrive are usually pregnant mothers that look for the protection of the lagoons to bear their calves, along with single females seeking mates. By mid-February to mid-March, the bulk of the population has arrived in the lagoons, filling them with nursing, calving and mating gray whales.Throughout February and March, the first to leave the lagoons are males and females without new calves. Pregnant females and nursing mothers with their newborns are the last to depart, leaving only when their calves are ready for the journey, which is usually from late March to mid-April. Often a few mothers linger with their young calves well into May. By late March or early April, the returning northbound animals can be seen from from the shores of Washington State in the US as well as Canada.”
Because gray whales are coastal migrators, their movements have been well observed by we humans. There is a great amount of detail available on the Internet. But, the questions of why and how are not really answered. Since the thinking of a gray whale is elusive, our explanations emerge only through the lens of our anthropomorphic point of view. At best we can presume that a gray whale is a coastal navigator because the creature is capable of maintaining a memory map of geographic landmarks (they do seem to “spy hop” — look around) or of ocean current characteristics. Somehow, the young are able to imprint these clues — whatever they might be. And, it appears that these animals are able to communicate.
What fascinates me about all of this is that, beyond the patterns in time that seem to drive the gray whale, there is another pattern in Nature lurking beyond our cognitive lens. That pattern is intelligence. I firmly believe that the arrogant nature of we humans prohibits us from accepting the fact that animal intelligence may be at a much higher level than that which we are willing to give credit. The gray whale’s different activity patterns and separated arrival and departure times while at the lagoons is, to me, a clue that some kind of patterns of intelligence do exist because decisions appear to be made. The first part of the four minute video shows some form of cognition as the whales move up to the observer’s boats with apparent interest.
With your comments, please let me know what you think.
My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.