Gray whales were nicknamed 'devil fish' for fighting back when harpooned by whalers. Now they approach boats and let humans pet them, baffling scientists.

  • Gray whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • They were known to fight back when harpooned, even damaging boats, earning the nickname "devil fish."

  • Now gray whales in Baja California frequently interact with humans in a remarkable shift.

Gray whales put up such a fight against whalers and their boats they earned the nickname "devil fish." Today, in the same places where the whales were hunted to the brink of extinction just decades ago, they swim right up to boats, enchanting and even befriending the people in them.

One of those remarkable encounters was captured in March in the Ojo de Liebre, a lagoon in Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The video showed a gray whale right beside a boat, allowing the captain to pick whale lice off its head.

Although some thought the whale was purposefully going to the captain for help with the whale lice — which are actually crustaceans, not insects — experts told Insider that's probably not the case.

Still, the fact that the gray whales of the Baja lagoons interact with boats and humans at all baffles researchers.

"This is what's so strange. They were hunted almost to extinction," Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told Insider. "You would think being near a person in a boat is the last thing the few remaining gray whales would've ever done and they would've had this disposition to avoid them at all costs, the few that survived."


Gray whales were hunted close to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries by commercial whaling. During that time, the whales developed a reputation for fiercely fighting back when harpooned, even attacking and damaging whaling boats.

They were also specifically hunted in the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja, where the famous migrators spend their winters birthing and nursing their calves. The gray whales then make the longest migration of any mammal, with most traveling more than 10,000 miles to their foraging grounds near Alaska.

After international conservation regulations were enacted in the 1930s and 40s, gray whale numbers bounced back. There are now believed to be 14,526 North Pacific gray whales, down from an estimate of 27,000 in 2016 due to an Unusual Mortality Event that started in 2019. Hunting gray whales is illegal, with some exceptions for Indigenous peoples in Alaska, Canada, and Mexico.

But the fact that the recovered whales are not only unbothered by humans and boats, but actively seek out encounters with them, remains a mystery. Trites said it's possible the whales simply have short memories, or that it could just be the shift in circumstances, that the whales are approaching people on their own terms.

Trites said he's witnessed the encounters in the lagoons of Baja several times and that he's always amazed by it, especially by the fact that the whales are initiating it.

"The whale turns on its side, looks you in the eye. It clearly is very curious about people," he said. "It isn't people running up to whales, it's whales coming to people."

A whale watcher touches a gray whale at Ojo de Liebre Lagoon in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur state, Mexico on March 27, 2021. - A reduction of contagions from COVID-19 has boosted whale watching tourism in Mexico. Each year hundreds of North Gray Whales travel thousands of miles from Alaska to the Baja California Peninsula breeding lagoons, part of El Vizcaino Gray Whale Sanctuary, a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage.
A whale watcher touches a gray whale at Ojo de Liebre Lagoon in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur state, Mexico on March 27, 2021.Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Another confounding aspect of the behavior is that the whales seem to only do this when they're in Baja, and generally don't continue the behavior during their migration up the West Coast or while they're in their foraging grounds.

Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist and professor at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, studies a population of gray whales that forage off the Pacific Northwest coast. When she was visiting a Baja lagoon in March, she happened to see one of the whales she frequently studies off of Oregon.

"The whale behaved completely differently down there," Torres told Insider.

It's unclear why the whales exhibit the behavior in the first place, let alone why they only do it in Baja. But Trites and Torres both said it could have to do with their priorities. When the whales are foraging, they eat enough in order to fast for the four to six months they are in Baja.

"I think when they're here they're just super focused on feeding and don't have the luxury, let's say, of expending energy and time to interact with the boats," Torres said.

Trites speculated it's possible whales just get a little bored in the lagoons. He said it's also possible the whales are playing when they approach boats, or that they get some sort of tactile pleasure from the interactions, such as the captain picking off whale lice.

It may just be out of curiosity too, he said, that "to see people and things around them enriches their day."

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