Mirages shimmer on salt-crusted plains that stretch unbroken to kiss a clouded blue umbrella-sky at the horizon. An Osprey, startled from it’s untidy pole-house nest, is our only witness as the mini-bus pogoes us coastward.
A familiar buzz of anticipation is building inside me and I scan the horizon ahead, thirsty for a glimpse of the sea. Today, I will see a whale.
I have been extremely fortunate to have witnessed whales and dolphins in every ocean on the planet and have observed more than one third of the world’s extant cetaceans. I’ve seen the entire spectrum of size and colour, from the long denim back of the mighty Blue Whale, to yellow algae-stained Antarctic Minkies, to bubble-gum pink Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins. I have worked with research organisations to document rare, lone beaked whales and have watched the sea appear to boil with pods of dolphins 1000 strong. I’ve drifted through sea ice in Antarctica with nothing but whale breath breaking the silence, and tuned in (with a hydrophone) to a surprising soundtrack of incessant clicks, squeals and chatter far below. It’s not easy to top the thrill of swimming with wild Orca as they feed on herring in the artic, but I think I can, because I have seen the Grey Whales of Baja California.
I write ‘have seen’ but perhaps ‘have been seen by’ is more accurate, as it is often difficult to tell who is watching whom in the lagoons of Baja California! Our encounters with earth’s largest creatures are usually fleeting – a glimpse as they briefly enter our upper dimension to exhale-inhale, before slipping silently back to their own world. Encounters with Grey Whales are a unique wildlife experience in that these great, grey leviathans seem to actively seek us out. This uncommon behaviour becomes positively mind-boggling when one considers that only a generation ago these whales were viciously hunted almost to the point of extinction by men in small boats a lot like the pangas that we use for whale watching today. And yet instead of living up to their whaling-days reputation of being ‘devil fish’ and dashing our boats to pieces with a single swipe of their massive flukes, they slowly nudge us sideways with their bowed rostrums. They swim directly underneath our panga, head visible to port, tail to starboard and lift us gently as we squeal in disbelief before lowering us safely back down. They have an entire ocean in which to avoid us, and yet they surface next to us and wait to be petted, opening their mouths to have their tongues and baleen scratched and tickled.
You may ask if these intimate interactions with wild creatures are a good idea? Try NOT paying attention to a 40ft whale that is nudging your 18ft boat and begging for a pat! If you can ignore it (really?) it will soon swim away a find a boat with people who won’t!
We arrive at our camp, deep in the Vizcaino Biosphere reserve on the edge of San Ignacio Lagoon. We eat lunch but I barely taste what is on offer as my mind is occupied with only one thing. I have been here before and I know that outside the door of the palapa, just a few minutes boat ride away, the world’s friendliest whales are waiting for us. Perhaps with not quite as much anticipation as we await them (they have the important work of breeding and calving to attend to in addition to ‘human watching’) but they are there.
I check and double-check my camera equipment, bag and double-bag it. We don windproof layers and lifejackets and take a seat in the panga. As we putter away from the camp I squeeze Thomas’ hand and ask him “what are all your friends doing right now?” “Boring school” he answers with a wide grin.
We are soon in deep water and I see a familiar heart-shaped puff of vapour in the distance. “Blow at two o’clock!” I shout, and my heart beats a little faster. I am whale watching. But more than that, much more than that, Thomas, the mini biologist by my side is whale watching. It is not his first time. Once, closer to home, we spent a long day in high seas; cold, wet, queasy and barely able to catch a glimpse of a whale. To say he didn’t enjoy it would be an understatement. Today is going to be different.
Within minutes we are in the (un)enviable position of being surrounded by their mottled grey bodies. Their barnacle and lice encrusted heads rest at the surface. Our heads swivel on our shoulders, not wanting to miss anything but unable to take it all in at once.
A cow and her young (monstrous) calf glide in our direction but submerge and disappear. Where are they? The underwater visibility is poor (perhaps stirred up from the recent hurricane?) so it is impossible to see more a metre or two. We lean over the sides of the panga, elbow deep in the inky water and call to them, singing, splashing, willing them to come. Suddenly, a mushroom-cloud of bubbles is forced to the surface and erupts next to us, eliciting squeals of surprise. It is closely followed by the incredible spectacle of 14 metres of mother Grey Whale rising steadily from the depths like a soviet submarine.
Thomas is paralysed by her sudden appearance and I have to encourage him to put his hand in the water. For a moment, she rests her hornbill rostrum under the gunwale beneath him to be petted, stroked and cooed at. Then, to his great amusement, she sprays a blast of salty sea breath in his face and sinks back down.
With fresh whale breath fogging our lenses, we fall back in delirious excitement at our close encounter with this extra-terrestrial.
A boat-full of strangers are instant best friends. A quiet couple who have barely spoken a word until now are suddenly talking gibberish. A grown man is squealing like a school-girl. Introverts are suddenly extroverts, the unflappable are flapping like fish out of water. We slap each other’s backs, squeeze hands, hug, high-five and give each other incredulous looks. We are new indoctrinates of an exclusive club and none of us will be quite the same again.
Our days, bookended by spectacular sunrises and sunsets, are filled with whale watches, walks around the reserve and delicious, home-cooked ‘comida Mexicana’.
Over the next few panga trips, we are fortunate to witness just about every cetacean behaviour imaginable. Curious whales make ‘periscope-up’ spyhops and roll slowly on their sides to eyeball us.
Mothers piggyback their calves or balance them on their noses and push them up for a better look at us.
Like peep-show voyeurs, we spend an entire afternoon watching two bulls persue a cow. Thomas, unaware of the true nature of their actions, calls their acrobatic mating efforts ‘tail fighting’ and we all laugh and agree that is exactly what they are doing.
On our last day, we take a wander to the bone yard and I am quietly shocked as I watch my never-ever-ever-sad little boy carefully examine the bones and weep for the whales that lost their lives. He feels more than I give him credit for.
He cries again as we say goodbye to the camp and our new friends and it’s hard for me not to join him. But it doesn’t feel like goodbye to me. Somehow, I think we might find ourselves bumping through the desert again, desperately scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the sea and feeling the pull of the whales from beyond the palapa. Somehow, I think we’ll be back.