Having intensively observed 50 shades of grey at Guerrero Negro, hooked us right in. Brain filters set to baleens, people and pictures frequently reinforced that San Ignacio Laguna on the west coast, just down the road from Guerrero Negro, reputed it to be the perfect breeding ground for the mysticeti (a whale without teeth). Little did they know they’d had me at hello. Antonio’s Ecotours boasted rave reports towards encounters in the same vein, as well as enjoying UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Hoping that we’d slam-dunk in the designated opening to encounter ‘Friendly whale syndrome’ again, I donned my helmet and set Pearl to roaring. Raring to get onto the rutted road leading into the laguna, what are we waiting for?
Back out for a second helping, I tingled in a surge of hope and excitement to the same aching degree as before. Sporting sun-bleached blue and red life jackets, we clambered aboard a blue and white panga, swaying on the shore. The white horses indicated the water choppy but we were assured that the whales were hanging out in an area of calm. The boat bounced lightly over the chop, its motor putt-putting while ospreys soared above us. A pelican in a five-strong formation would cut away and dive-bomb with missile speed into the blue. Daniel, the owner’s son and our personal guide, continually surveyed the waters for the presence of whales.
“When you scratch her mouth, often, the whale will open her jaw,” Daniel imparted en route to the observation area. Wow, I’d love to see that. No sooner had the outboard motor been switched to neutral, as part of the strict rules of engagement, and a mother with her calf came to say hello. I stretched my arm out splashing mum and noted the size of her mouth. It would have made a king-sized pillow look like a Sweet’n Low.
I never got to glimpse her bright-pink tongue having liked to, because that’s where she displays a slick, off-white, keratin-filled fringe. Made up of plates that hang like curtains, which she uses to strain tiny creatures from scooping massive mouthfuls of water. Still, it wasn’t feeding time, it was a mating ground. Careful to avoid her blowholes, eyes and fluke, I tickled an implausibly friendly grey on her bulbous nose.
Down she went. Swimming back towards a rising tide of anticipation beneath the boat, brushing the hull as she went and popping up on the other side. Baby jumped up on her back—its face smiling and full of innocence, while mum rubbed up alongside the boat like a cat. A maelstrom of mayhem erupted as the pair of us hung over the boat’s edge, squealing in delight grabbing cameras, GoPros and drones, forgetting promises to keep the craft counter-balanced.
It took a vigorous pat to affect a creature the size of a Greyhound coach, we realised, her skin glistening and smooth when slapped. The magnificent mammal released a satisfied sigh in response. “You are gorgeous, big momma!” rose unbidden to my lips while Mika’s song lyrics swirled around in my head: “Big girl you are beautiful”.
Gone again. With a sinking heart, losing the connection galvanised me into hurried action: creating a splashing frenzy on the surface in the eager hopes of attracting her attention again. Nothing. My hopes nosedived, blinded in a blur of worry, concerned I’d never see them both again. That was the trouble with luck, I figured—it runs out. Increasingly big bubble rings appeared before seeing her next, getting a power-shower as she cleared her “nostrils” with a thunderous blow. Yep, I was drenched in whale snot.
Her tennis ball-sized eye tracked our movements; this 6,000-stone specimen of Eschrichtius robustus, seemed as shamelessly inquisitive about us, as we were about her. Emotion swelled at the back of my throat, glassy eyed from the shine of tears in them. Happiness swirled around me as I watched her leave a huge footprint, eddying on the surface. Smiling widely, I was at risk of swallowing my own ears. Post one boatload of guests gawping with their jaw-on-the-floor, one chap came ashore and exclaimed, “That did absolutely not suck!” his voice freighted with witless wonder and an expression akin to a caveman who had just discovered fire.
Daniel clearly exhibited a knack with knowing when to slow the pace, stay patiently with the same mother-calf pair and build up the trust and rapport required, compared to the other tour company’s boat handlers. It wasn’t long before I dubbed him the ‘Whale Whisperer’. What’s more, he deftly handled his craft, passing the leviathans off like ballroom dancers changing partners. As one panga moved toward a pair, the other would stay at a respectful distance, waiting their turn.
I loved that it felt a far cry from a circus, a disastrously mishandled snafu; rather, it was a small and intimate operation respecting tight regulations in whale-welfare-oriented waters. I could’ve stayed all day but Baja restrictions control time spent in the human’s happy place. The hour and a half fell by the wayside quickly. Too soon, we turned the boat around to camp. Back on terra firma, I shook Daniel’s hand, and worried later that my zealous handshake had been strong enough to turn coal to diamonds. As right as every fibre in my body felt, I still wondered whether whale watching compromises the breeding ground in some unknown but significant way.
Grey whale expert Dr. William Megill, Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation founder, had some answers online. He believes that tourism has no obvious effect on the whales, and our current code of conduct keeps them safe: “San Ignacio is probably the best-run whale-watching area in the world. It is set up so the local economy can thrive off the revenue: Drivers are all local, and all the logistical support for all the camps is done locally.” Well, most of them were but still, ploughing money back into local businesses, endorsing and raising awareness for the longevity of such a life-changing encounter sounded sustainable.
Pray tell, may it continue to help San Ignacio—still free of industrial development and permanent human settlements, where plans to grow and expand are being increasingly pushed in the whale-watching areas—stay that way. In the private counsels of my own mind, I acknowledged that a harmony still exists today. Tomorrow, who knows?
Egocentrically, that sounded viable but what about eco-centrically? While protecting the waters and leaving the whales completely to it, might be asking too much nowadays, there were big bodies of waters where that still happens. Let’s compromise with eco-tourism?
At the good fortune of meeting whale-guru Dr. Steven Swartz, director of Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program and author of Lagoon time – A guide to gray whales and the natural history of San Ignacio Lagoon with several decades of firsthand experience with the greys, I asked him after his presentation what the benefits were to the whales from human interaction. Curious as well, if there were any downsides to observing the mammals.
Painting a picture for me to give some context, I listened with avalanching fascination. It was good to understand that through frequent: sound recordings being made on San Ignacio’s sea bottom; identification from digital photography; DNA sampling; and slightly less effective radio-tagging, all help to convey a holistic picture of what’s happening above and below the waterline with the whales. Long gone are the barbaric whaling days of man’s enmity to mammal; there’s not a whale in these waters that are subjected to harassment of any kind, but perhaps relatively best of all, humans are not allowed to be bothersome towards the greys off the Baja.
Fortunately, there are stringent limits in the aggregation areas where the mothers are nursing their young, the juveniles are learning how to reproduce and the males are forever trying to elongate their legacy. The coastal guard confines all whale watching to no more than 16 boats at any one time. And staggers individual boats to 90-minutes’ surveillance. Which is bob-on for an observation enclosure at 7-miles long by 1.5-miles wide.
Swartz looked around the table of pricked ears and piqued interest, letting everyone know with his eyes that what he was about to say was worth hearing. Voicing a valid point that while humans are allowed in the confines of a 6-metre long boat, we are put in the presence of whales. We are not chasing them down mindlessly for our pleasure. We are simply passive observers.
With my ignorance repaired, what makes the whales curious enough to linger around us then? Swartz apprehended that when the outboard motors are set to idling, a frequency is emitted and the vibrations from it are congruent to what is keenly noted in the whale’s hearing range. The babies are highly inquisitive: mum is on one side—‘Great, there’s food. Ooh, what’s that over there?’ will often compel them to investigate the boat. Such is what brings the pairs in to take a closer look.
For me, the pièce de résistance was the breaching. Thrashing out of the water at an astounding height, acrobatically poised mid-air—arching their backs and waving their flippers—they belly-smack the water with a thunderous splash. As though a submarine has been dropped from a great height. It’s a humbling experience.
Where white, rectangular structures—just big enough for two people—dotted a quiet, sparsely populated landscape at San Ignacio Laguna, we made home beneath a palapa, adorned in myriad pretty shells. The sunsets always seemed to give everything a patina akin to the glow of honey. Beyond, pronghorn antelope and sand dunes formed taupe silhouettes against low-lying mountains. Most days gave way to breezy, uneven, and incredibly windy nights’ sleep. I might as well have been cresting six-foot waves all night—my hammock swinging the way it was.
I enjoyed a surround-sound of the coyotes howling their nocturnal calls on the periphery, competing over the soundtrack of the wind’s strong whistle against the sea’s booming waves crashing on the rocks. Far better though, was when the wind died to a pin-drop stillness and despite knowing the whales weren’t really close, the sound of their blows were. I couldn’t have fallen to sleep to a more soothing sound. Muy tranquilo.
“Coffee, Lisa?” Jason enquired as he emerged the next morning, so tired his face looked like an unmade bed. It took me a moment while I shook the sleep out of my brain, stretching like a cat waking from a seven-hour nap. With the rising sun bringing light and warmth, daylight flooding into the world outside my hammocked cocoon, I looked the answer at him and smiled.
And popping into my head, was how the other half live. Yesterday, we had boated past people staying with Baja Discovery, locating them on the rim of the observation area. That is, for $3,200 USD bought the patrons five tours, three nights’ camping where the whales were in abundance, a hotel and a return flight from San Diego.
Rightly or wrongly, I couldn’t quite wrap my logic around how removing the 15-minute boat ride we were taking, justified paying over 90 per cent more than us, for the privilege. (It was $10 USD for us to camp each night.) I’d want to undergo the transformation into a mermaid for that and move in with the friendly behemoths for the season. Pulling me out of my reverie, the unmade bed shifted into furrows of indifference, which told me to live and let live.
During the evenings spent in the absence of whale-addicts, Jason and I were left to our own devices. Entrusted with shutting up shop and switching off the main light—a quarter turn of a shadeless lightbulb. As with the bottles of beer we’d consumed, that was the level of honesty I liked about places such as these. I felt blessed off the human Richter scale and part of the family; yet another community I’d always savour.
Night had begun to fall quickly, draping the dry and dusty landscape in a veil of luminescent charcoal. The full moon blared freely in a leaden sky, enabling me to survey the glittering belly of the heavens. Throbs and wobbles of the most distant stars stood under a brilliant night sky, glowing in a wash of moonlight. Daniel invited us one evening to a table of barbequed oysters, caught only minutes before being cooked to tenderness perfection. Dust sparkled faintly in the gleam of firelight, stirred up by the feet of the people who milled around. A nimbus of flames flickered while the fire popped and shot sparks to twirl into the warm air.
For me, the blur of leaping, laughing, spouting, splashing, stroking, playing and patting, put a whole new meaning behind having a whale of a time. The unalloyed truth: the whales were easy to spot, the encounters had been practically guaranteed—many of them curious as cats—and the unforgettable live show sparked a roller-coaster of emotions: soothing and tranquil, shocking and unsettling, mesmerising and awe-inspiring. It had given me such a raw, unscripted moment with a wild animal.
The English language simply can’t do justice to spending time with the game and light-hearted greys. Heck, you might get lucky and catch head on, or the tail end, of one perform the most spectacular acrobatic display. With crazy-good fortune, we did. Wide-eyed on whales, the time had come to leave and I figured it would be best to give the memories a chance to breathe. I was humbled by so much raw nature, clearly wanting to connect, it was worth travelling all the way to the Baja from Great Britain for that single experience alone. There is nothing else quite like it. Leaping whales coinciding with a leap year, Jason even agreed to marry me!