Larry Hobbs

Marine Mammal Biologist
For 30 years, Larry Hobbs has led numerous Smithsonian Journeys to the Baja California region as well as other fascinating marine environments, including Antarctica, the Northwest Passage, Hudson Bay, Greenland, Alaska, the Amazon, and Iceland. As a marine mammal biologist, Larry has served as director for the marine mammal tagging division for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce, and he was a principal research scientist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. For many years his research focused primarily on the California gray whale, studying their behavior, natural history, and population dynamics.
 


Q: You return to the Baja Peninsula every year. What keeps you fascinated by the region?
A: Baja California is one of the most diverse, picturesque, and interesting places on this planet. I am blessed to travel with nature groups all over the world each year and yet every year I return to Baja, along with the whales, to bask in wonder at the sheer abundance and diversity of the marine and terrestrial life. I believe that had Darwin visited the fascinating and isolated islands of Baja California rather than the Galápagos, he would have solidified his discoveries about evolution and natural selection and made this place as famous as the Galápagos... but because he didn’t this fabulous area remains a little-known and precious treasure.
Q: You have had a long career in marine mammal studies. What kinds of research on the California gray whale did you conduct?
A: By the early 1970s we knew more about the Californian gray whales than any other species of great whale, however, we actually knew very little. I came to the calving lagoons of Baja in 1973 as a graduate student to see if we could find out a bit more about these incredible animals. In addition to three years of shore-based behavioral studies, we also caught young gray whales and placed radio transmitters, depth of dive recorders, and other instrumentation on them. We then followed them around the lagoons and out into the eastern north Pacific ocean. From these studies we began to piece together a much more complete story about the lives of these extraordinary animals—including their movements, behavior, and relationships with each other and the ecosystems they inhabit.
Q: What is the most unusual wildlife sighting that you’ve experienced in your many years on the Baja cruise?
A: A few years after the first of the "friendly" whale encounters in San Ignacio Lagoon, I was out watching gray whales with a boatload of Smithsonian travelers when I witnessed the most incredible wildlife experience I have ever seen. A mother whale was swimming along with her calf, circling us and getting ever closer to our little inflatable boat. After about an hour of incredible whale watching, the mother turned toward us with her baby draped across her rostrum ("nose") and pushed the baby right up to our boat. It felt as though she was proudly introducing us to her incredibly cute newborn, which seemed to me like a human mother presenting her newborn to a lion—it just didn’t seem like something like this could ever happen. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance and hugged and petted that little guy (18 feet and 2 tons) until mother decided enough was enough and led the well-loved whale baby further into the lagoon to continue their whale-life. As far as I know, this was the first such encounter with a baby whale and the beginning of many hundreds of such encounters with young whales every year in all the calving lagoons of Baja California.
Q: Can you recognize unique individual whales from one trip to the next?
A: Gray whales have very complex and variable patterns on their skin and are not easily identified by color patterns alone. However, they often have scars and unique marks that help us identify them reasonably well. There are some whales that we do recognize year after year and certainly some that we can identify during a season as they move fluidly around a lagoon as well as between the various lagoons. If the marks are distinct enough we can identify them by eye and memory, otherwise we use photos to capture more subtle scars and marks.
Q: What do you hope participants will experience and learn by visiting this region?
A: Being in the lagoons with the whales is a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed experience. I have been coming to the lagoons each year for 35 years and wouldn’t miss a chance to return for anything. Seeing the females with their young floating in the peaceful, calm lagoons, blowing their spouts into the clear desert air and just being in this place where the desert meets the sea is extraordinary. However, that is only a part of these trips, which also often include sightings of humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, dolphins, and the incredible birds and plants of the unique islands of the Gulf of California. So along with learning about whale behavior and ecology, I hope participants will learn about and experience desert ecology, island biogeography, marine biology, and geology directly as we encounter these ecosystems and species along the way. The trips always far exceed anyone’s expectations…and that includes mine!