Baja: Touched by a Whale
MAGDALENA BAY, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, MEXICO; ABOARD THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SEA BIRD -- I wanted to touch a whale. At heart, that was my entire reason for traveling to Baja California to cruise in Magdalena Bay and the Sea of Cortez last month. In 30 years of world-wandering and 25 years of living on the Northern California coast, somehow I had managed to miss seeing, much less touching, the largest animal on the planet. And on my life list of Things to Do, touching a whale was near the top.
Of course, it would have been foolhardy to predicate the success of an entire trip on such a mission; that would almost guarantee failure. So I told myself that just seeing a whale would be enough. And I told myself that even if the whales inexplicably failed to show up, there would be other rewards that would more than merit the trip.
But I have to admit that after my first morning’s whale-watching excursion -- motoring around the choppy seas of Magdalena Bay for two hours in a rubberized Zodiac peering whalelessly into a cool, cottony fog -- my heart had sunk about as deep as a bottom-feeding gray.
These depths were plumbed again at lunch, when passengers from other morning excursions breezed in with tales of whales swimming right up to their Zodiacs; quickly an invisible divide grew between those who had and those who hadn’t.
While this was only the second full day of our cruise, I knew that the Zodiac outings were the only opportunity we’d have on the week-long trip to get close enough to whales to touch them, and I knew that I had only two more Zodiac outings – at 4:00 that afternoon and 8:30 the following morning -- to realize my dream. To pass the time after lunch, I tossed and turned in my bunk, stared blankly at my journal and scanned the implacable horizon.
At 4:00 seven of us clambered into our Zodiac with a naturalist and a local whale guide on board. The local guides are essential: They know the waters and the ways of the whales, and they ensure that we are complying with rules established to protect the whales in the region. (In fact, these local guides are the only individuals who have the official Mexican government permits that allow whale-watching.)
As we bounced over the waves, the fresh air and sea spray swooshing our faces, Carlos, the broad-smiling, big-hearted, encyclopedic Mexican naturalist on board our ship, reviewed what we’d learned so far: Every year gray whales make a 5,000-mile migration south from the frigid waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the comparatively tropical waters of Baja California. The whales arrive here around January, and in these gentle, protected waters, they give birth and raise their young.
“Blow at 2 o’clock!” he suddenly yelled, and Lucinda the Zodiac driver shifted toward the spout of whale-spray that had materialized on the horizon.
The area we were approaching – Carlos pointed toward the now invisible blow -- is known as “the nursery,” a protected stretch of water near the Boca de Soledad’s narrow entrance from the ocean to the bay. This is a favorite place for whale mothers to give birth and to train their calves, Carlos said, teaching them how to swim against the strong currents at the mouth of the bay. When they’re ready, they embark on the long migration north again, in March and April.
“Rolling!” Lucinda shouted, pointing ahead. In the distance we could see a massive gray arcing shape mottled with whitish spots slowly rising out of the water and seeming to turn over on top of an even larger gray mass beneath it.
“That’s the baby rolling over the mother!” Carlos said. “They love to play like that. Whales are very tactile creatures, and touching is an important way for them to communicate and to bond.”
As we bounced closer, Lucinda slowed the Zodiac and we could clearly see two massive humps – one twice the length of our Zodiac, the other so much larger we couldn’t see its head or tail -- swimming side by side. The mother spouted and with gigantic grace flipped her flukes up and then dove into depths we couldn’t fathom. The baby dove after her.
We floated, scanning the blue sea surface for whale “footprints” – smooth oval stretches of water created when the whales propel themselves with their tails underwater. We searched for spouts or sleek gray humps breaking through the waves. Nothing.
“Carlos,” I asked, “when a whale flips its flukes like that – can you call it fluking?”
He cocked his bald head, smiled. “You can call it that if you want to.”
“Look out! Nine o’clock. Coming right for us!” Lucinda shouted, and rising toward the surface a huge gray-white shape sped toward our Zodiac. The baby!
“He’s coming to check us out,” Carlos said.
“Splash! Splash!” a passenger named Thuy said, and immediately she and another passenger bent over the side of the Zodiac and began to slap the surface of the water with their hands. “We learned this morning that this might help attract the babies,” she explained.
Suddenly a four-foot-long gray head appeared just below the surface of the water a few feet off our Zodiac. The baby whale turned and swept its eye over us, then swerved away. “Keep splashing!” Thuy encouraged us.
So I got on my knees and leaned over the Zodiac’s rubbery side and began pounding the water for all I was worth.
“Momma at three o’clock!” Thuy’s husband Mitch said and nine heads simultaneously swiveled. A blue-white undersea giant as least three times longer than our Zodiac serenely swam by us.
“I think she’s checking us out to see if we’re suitable for her baby to play with, “Carlos said. “Send out good whale vibes.”
Our Zodiac erupted into cries of “Come here, Baby! We love you, Baby! Momma, your baby is so beautiful!” accompanied by a chorus of splashing.
“Here comes Baby!” Carlos said and the now familiar snout surged toward us, swimming right up to our Zodiac, lifting itself out of the water so it could touch us. I dove forward with the other passengers and stretched my arm as far as I could. Contact!
Sleek, smooth, soft, rubbery whale-skin – cool and pliant and living and unlike anything I’d ever touched before – was flowing under my fingertips. Baby seemed to give a little smile and then pushed away.
“Woohoo!” I shouted and high-fived Mitch and the Zodiac resounded with Woohoos and All rights and Wows. Even the two teenagers among us seemed impressed.
But Baby wasn’t finished. It swam right under our Zodiac – I felt its bulbous back slide lumpily beneath my knees – then surfaced and made a run for our other side. Like cartoon characters, we all leaped to that side. And again, Baby swam right up to us, lifted its head out of the water and seemed to welcome – to initiate -- our contact.
Again I leaned over as far as I could and trailed my hand in the cold whirling water and again the cool sleek touch of baby whale skin electrified me. Double whale contact!
For the next half hour we floated in an otherworldly orb of whale-ness. Baby and Momma circled around our Zodiac, spouting, rolling, diving, swimming side by side, skimming up to us and then plunging playfully under us. A few times Baby swam up to us as if we were a rubber ducky in its bathtub and pushed us along with its snout.
We were all whooping and laughing and calling out to Momma and Baby and for a half hour it was as if we were having an inter-species play date.
I didn’t think it could get any better than that, but shortly before Momma and Baby swam away into the depths of the bay, Momma sent her own message. She had been swimming warily but serenely at a distance from the Zodiac the entire time, content to let Baby play with us, just monitoring that we all behaved.
But at this moment, she swam straight at us, a blue-white underwater mammal-bus hurtling our way. She swam right up to the Zodiac and turned gently over as she approached, so that her eye was out of the water, looking up at us. As she cruised under the bow of the Zodiac, where I was straining forward, she passed right under me. I arched and extended my arm and felt her cool, sleek cheek. I stroked it for a few seconds and in that time she looked straight into my eye and I looked straight into hers.
And plunged into a pool of understanding and wisdom older and more far-reaching and of a different order than anything I’d encountered before. She knew. She knew things I could never know – about the age and evolution of the earth, about her vast underwater world. And in that instant she communicated something that I can only convey as peace and understanding, and that surged through me as an all-knowing, and somehow pardoning, blessing.
Call it projection if you want, but I know what I felt.
And it flukes in the deep blue depths of my being, even now.
The following Adventure Collection members also offer trips to Baja, visiting a variety of areas and offering a variety of activities: Backroads, Natural Habitat Adventures, NOLS, OARS and Off the Beaten Path.