Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rubbing rostrums with the whales

Like most kids who grow up on the SoCal coast, I've been whale watching. The Dramamine Cruise field trip is a rite of passage in San Diego, a chance to get cold and nauseous with your classmates while looking for waves on the horizon that are darker than the other waves on the horizon. We are told, since there is no discernable whaleness or whaley features whatsoever, The dark waves are whales! Real live whales! This is our cue to squeal with glee, and hurray! It's finally time turn the boat around and get some hot chocolate. It is, at least potentially, a fascinating glimpse of the natural world, though I suspect that the experience spawns more future orgasm-fakers than future naturalists. Not that the two are exclusive. But I digress...

When we were invited to spend a week whale watching in Baja, I was excited about having a vacation together, spending time with family friends, and exploring a new place... To be honest, seeing the whales was toward the bottom of list of reasons I wanted to go.

I blog to you today as a reformed whale watching sceptic. Laguna San Ignacio is one of three nursery areas for the gray whales, and the only one that has not been developed. When Mitsubishi and the Mexican government planned to build a huge salt plant in the lagoon, NRDC stepped in, and the resulting victory is one of the great environmental success stories and a model of ecotourism. The area is now recognized as a protected biosphere, with restrictions on future development and carefully limited camping and boating.

The local economy is growing stronger, with a crafts cooperative that thrives making whale souvenirs and schools that have received generous grants for Internet access and technology. Not to mention jobs as pangeros, guides, drivers, and cooks... and wow, what cooks!

It doesn't seem right to call the experience "whale watching," a term that's been tainted by those early field trips and is far too passive to describe the contact we had. What we experienced was whale rubbing, whale singing, whale cooing, dunking our heads into the water and looking the whales in the eye. About 10% of the whales that come to San Ignacio are "friendlies"—they seem to enjoy contact with humans. Mother whales actually guide their calves toward the small boats.

The whale in this picture is a calf, just a couple of months old, already substantially bigger than our boat. The shape lurking beneath is the mother, who also came up to be petted. There were two 1-1/2 hour boat trips each day, and I lost count of how many individual whales we met.

After boating, we returned to camp at Punta Piedras, to spend time exploring the mangroves, looking at shells and bones on the beach, eating delicious fresh foods, or sitting along the bluffs, with the teal green waters of the shallows giving way to the darker currents that teemed with whales spyhopping, blowing, breaching and mating. Our view from shore was better than the view I've experienced on most whale watching cruises, but now even the distant whales have become real to me, and more intimate. They aren't just some dark, wave-like abstraction of a whale anymore.

On our first day home yesterday, we went for a run along the cliffs above the beach, scanning the horizon for traces for flukes or sprays, but saw only the smooth Pacific. They're out there, though. I know it.


George said...

Thar Queen Whackamole blows!

Welcome back to the internets. It sounds like you had a whale of a time.

Patrick said...