Whale Kissing & Spy-hopping in Baja

Eye of Baby Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

Eye of Baby Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

To be touched by a whale is to be changed for life.

It’s an experience that entered my psyche, bounced around my emotional pool and exited through my intellect. Soft whale skin pressed against my cheek. A throat lifted toward me – “please scratch me.” Mother whales lifted babies toward the boat.

This gift, this play, this sharing.

Can it not be considered an act of love?

How is it possible that these extraordinary leviathans trust us at all? Hunted to near extinction – not once, but twice – their numbers had been reduced to fewer than 100 by human hands hungry for lamp oil.

That they continue to reach out to us, present their young for petting, acknowledge and seek out our presence is a mystery – and some would call, a miracle.

Eloise, CC, Laura at Campo Cortez

Eloise, CC, & Laura at Campo Cortez

We were four – Lynn, Laura, Eloise and me – at Campo Cortez seeking “the friendlies” as the whales in the lagoon have come to be known. To arrive, we’d overcome a faulty car alarm, a dead starter motor, 40 miles of wicked washboard road and one flat tire. Once we arrived at camp, the dusty journey drifted into the past.

Campo Cortez sits on the edge of the lagoon near the boundary of the birthing waters and the playpen in the sanctuary. San Ignacio Lagoon is part of the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, a recognized World Heritage site. This desert is extremely dry, consists primarily of volcanic soil and has limited vegetation.

The location of the camps is totally “off the grid.” There is no electricity, no phone lines, or fresh water system.

This has limited the human invasion – no commerce centers or factories mar this retreat. The night sky provides a triple blanket of stars, and the silence is broken only by the whale songs and coyote calls.

On our late afternoon arrival (the tire thing), we were quickly fitted with life jackets by guides Adrianna and Christina, and joined the other “campers” on three separate pongas. The wind was brisk and whipped up small waves and we bounced inside the boat.

Whale spouts surrounded us, and even though we were early in the season, the park personnel had counted 85 whales, all of which seemed to be diving, rolling and breaching in the bay. Our first trip, none advanced to be pet, but they were close enough to almost touch.

That night, we were treated to footage by a film crew from National Geographic, led by documentarian, Luke Inman. He showed clips of whales spy-hopping the boat, spraying the passengers, and being kissed.

Reddish Heron

Reddish Heron

The tide in the morning was ultra low, and the mud flats in front of our cabins were alive with shorebirds foraging for small crustaceans. Oyster catchers mingled with marbled godwits, sandpipers, heron and cattle egrets. Overhead, two osprey searched the receding water for their breakfast.

After breakfast, we all walked to the point and again boarded the boats. Our boat captain, Cuko, had not driven very far when we encountered our first pair.

He idled the engine and we started to splash in the water. The whales seem to be drawn either to the soft sound or the droplets themselves, but the mother whale came right to the boat with her baby.

We could see them under the water before they surfaced and were all “ooh” and “ahh” as they lifted their heads right next to us to be touched.

Each in turn ran their hands across a skin surface that felt unexpectedly as soft as a chamois. Soon, we had a second pair, and we were petting, scratching – and yes, kissing the tops of these huge mammals heads.

San Ignacio Lagoon Ranger w/Spy-Hopper

San Ignacio Lagoon Ranger w/Spy-Hopper

A park boat nearby whose job it is to insure that no whale watching takes place inside the birthing zone, was surprised by the attention of a solitary whale. She would simply not leave his boat alone, and kept spy-hopping (coming up head first) and peering into his boat. Satisfied that he had no passengers, the whale began to play with the boat, pushing it in circles with her nose, and at one point, lifting the bow gently out of the water.

A sweet four-year old was on our boat, and was simply delighted to watch all the excitement. Over dinner, she asked her mother, “Why do people want to touch them?”

There are probably as many answers as there are those lucky enough to experience a whale’s touch. For me, it was exactly that – the touch. Not simply my hands on their bodies, but their reaching out, soliciting the experience. Together, we bridged the human barrier that separates us from most creatures in the wild.

Whale Blow!

Whale Blow!

No longer will the spouts of whale spume offshore be merely white foam. I’ll remember the eye of the whale, how the tiny baby looked up at me from her watery home, and we connected. I’ll be thankful for conservation measures and the way that sometimes, human beings can protect and defend their fellow travelers on planet earth.

Migrating with the Whales to Baja

We’re following the whales, the girls and I, south to San Ignacio Lagoon. After weeks of watching the graceful grays glide past our Southern California coastline, we’ve booked three days at Baja Ecotours outpost in Baja California, on the edge of the lagoon.

Laura McCants spearheaded the idea, and I was quick to spread the invitation. Lynn Brown and Eloise Coopersmith enthusiastically joined the party.

Lynn Brown

Lynn Brown

Laura McCants

Laura McCants

Eloise Coopersmith

Eloise Coopersmith

When the gray whale was first discovered in the North Pacific, it was called the devilfish. Capt. Charles Scammon discovered their major breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California. He and his men furiously hunted the whale, and in turn, the grays killed several men and smashed all of his boats. Because of these actions, the grays were feared by the local population.

Luke Inman photographs Grey Whale at Ponga

Luke Inman photographs Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

It wasn’t until 1977 that the same gray species became responsible for what is now called “the-friendly-whale- phenomenon.” That season, a single gray whale allowed itself to be petted by passengers by all the whale-watching boats it could find.

During successive seasons, the number of petting whales increased, until now. It appears to be learned behavior, and people travel from all parts of the world to be near these gentle giants.

The gray whale has the unique distinction of being the only member of the family Eschrichtiidae, and a mysticete, or a baleen whale. It is a “coastal” whale that migrates from the krill-rich waters of the Artic seas to the birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja. Their year of travel covers 12,400 miles.

They have streamlined bodies with narrow, tapered heads. The whale received its name from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin. Its skin is home to both scattered patches of barnacles and orange whale lice. Newborn calves are dark gray to black, although some may have distinct white markings.

Adult males measure from 45 to 46 feet in length, and females are slightly longer. Both sexes weigh from 30 to 40 tons.

The gray whale has no dorsal (top) fin, but a bump where it would be, and then a series of smaller bumps or “knuckles” that continue along to the tail. Its flippers are paddle-shaped and pointed at the tips; its fluke is about 10-12 feet across, pointed at the tips, and deeply notched in the center.

Gray whales mate in December or January, and a single young is born 13.5 months later — the following January or February. The young travel north with their mothers when they are only 2 months old, and continue nursing until they are 6 to 9 months old. They are generally seen alone or in groups of three.

These whales, which once inhabited both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, have been close to extinction at least twice in human history, and now live only in the Pacific. Now that they are protected, the gray whale population can continue to recover its numbers.

Eloise, CC & Laura at Campo Cortez

Eloise, CC & Laura at Campo Cortez

“Campo Cortez,” the base camp run by Baja Ecotours, was founded in 1989 by Johnny Friday, an avid diver, explorer and filmographer, and Maldo Fischer, a local fisherman and whale watch guide. Both men share a deep affection and respect for the marine world, and their camp provides eco-conscious travelers with an off-the-beaten path experience. His staff consists of local residents who have a lifetime of knowledge of the area and the lagoon, but are also professional boat captains and naturalists. Their focus is on education and a rewarding experience.

Girls gone wild. Well, not too wild. The camp is solar and wind-powered, and lights are out at 9:30 p.m. That means we’ll have the an increased opportunity for star gazing, hundreds of miles away from annoying city lights. Eloise took a deep breath when she discovered she was “camping,” and friends of Laura’s worried she had set off on a life-threatening experience. Reminds me of the naming of the gray whale — devilfish. How much we don’t know and have yet to learn.

This weekend, we will definitely be in the experiential mode. We are hoping for calm seas and many whale encounters, along with leisurely strolls along empty beaches, and exploratory kayaking in the adjacent mangrove lagoons.

And then there is always the thought that some of the whales we see in the lagoon will be the same that we chance to sight on their journey northward. Maybe we’ll get a tail flap as a confirmation.

Friends, Acquaintances & Chance Encounters

Every trip south I am rewarded with new friends. Seems that Baja just works that way. From casual conversations in the airport to more detailed ‘get-to-know-you’ ones on the actually plane ride, and the chance encounters .. Are there chance encounters?

This trip, a meeting with Johnny Friday, the proprietor of Baja Ecotours, with whom Laura McCants, Lynn Brown, Eloise Coopersmith, and I will journey with in February to San Ignacio Lagoon. We’ll spend three days visiting the migrating grey whales and their young calfs, paddling kayaks in the mangrooves, and getting to know each other better – along with new friends.

Johnny also runs a dive operation out of La Paz – with live-aboard boats. I’ve booked time with him for probably August .. Soccoro Island – whale sharks and manta rays are in my scopes.

The International Conference for Sea Turtle Conservation is held annually in Loreto. At a reception, held at the stunning home of Linda and Tony Kinninger, I was able to spend some time speaking with Wallace J. Nichols, who is with The Ocean Conservancy, and had spent the last year as President of the Turtle Foundation. We spoke a bit about the video script I’ve written .. and the filming of Bill Bahn .. as a conservation educational piece to gather support for Marine Reserve programs in northern California. A popular item with conservationsionists .. a tough sell to commercial fisherman.

Good friend and realtor, Alexander Ogilvie, had been out of town for the party, but he arrived two days later with one of his life long buddies, Gaston. Gaston is a restauranteur in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and was filled with wonderful stories of life in the north. He also cooks a mean risotto.

Not to be overlooked, the chance meeting of two great guys – Dennis Choate and his friend Donn Stein, who offered up a guest house in San Juanico – if I ever make it to the other side.