These are the incredible moments that stunned tourists came face to face with 50ft California gray whales off the coast of Mexico.
The tourists can’t hold back their delight each time the gentle giants arrive at their boat, happily allowing their new friends to pet and stroke them.
Pictures and footage of these beautiful meetings are taken by award-winning marine life photographer Jeff Pantukhoff in San Ignacio Lagoon, located in the Mulegé municipality of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur.
Pantukhoff, 59, revealed that San Ignacio Lagoon is one of the only places in the world where tourists can experience this kind of up close and personal interaction with California gray whales.
‘There are no other species of baleen whales that actively seek out human interaction like this where they approach boats so closely that you can reach out and touch them,’ he said.
California gray whales are found mainly in the shallow waters of the North Pacific Ocean. They are frequently observed traveling alone or in small, unstable groups, although large aggregations may be seen on feeding and breeding grounds.
Gray whales are bottom feeders, sucking sediment and amphipods that are their prey from the sea floor.
Both the average and maximum lifespan of these marine mammals is unknown, although researchers have estimated that they can live up to 80 years of age.
Pantukhoff, who has led trips out to the lagoon for 25 seasons, approximates there could be anywhere been 200 to 400 hundred gray whales in the area.
‘For a lot of my guests these trips are life changing, just as they were for me,’ he said.
Some even followed in Pantukhoff’s footsteps and have joined him on the trips for the last 10 years.
Pantukhoff wanted to do something to help protect marine life and the environment when he began leading the trips.
So he founded The Whaleman Foundation, a non-profit research, education, conservation, and wildlife film production organization dedicated to protecting our oceans.
‘I founded Whaleman in 1995 with the primary mission of raising public awareness while educating key decision makers on issues that affect dolphins, whales, porpoises and their critical habitats,’ Pantukhoff said.
‘What most people do not realize is that our oceans are under severe threat from warming sea temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, eroding habitats, the loss of over 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs, over-fishing causing a reduction of over 90 percent of commercial fish stocks and the list goes on and on.’
‘But there is hope,’ he added. ‘Given the chance, our oceans and the life they contain can rebound.’
‘But it is going to take all of us to consciously make the choice to make a difference in our daily lives from choosing what kind of cleaners and shampoos to use, to pesticides, single use plastics, and the type of car you drive.’
Pantukhoff said Whaleman has since written, directed, and produced seven films as well as a number of public service announcements on these issues.
They have been presented to the likes of both the US Congress and the United Nations.
Whaleman now has a number of high-profile supporters, including major stars like Piers Brosnan and Hayden Panettiere.
And thanks to conservation efforts by the likes of Pantukhoff and The Whaleman Foundation, gray whales have been removed from the US Endangered Species list after a successful period of population recovery.
Their numbers now total an estimated 26,000.