The possibility of actually touching a forty-ton gray whale in its natural environment at first seems like a self-indulgent exercise in toying with Mother Nature. It is not until I am kneeling in a small boat in Mexico’s remote Magdalena Bay, with a mother whale directly beneath my outstretched hand, that I realize how much I want to make that physical contact—to feel mama’s barnacled skin and gently stroke her baby.
Ever so slowly the mother floats closer to the surface until she is just inches from my hand. Taking this as an invitation, I extend my arm farther, only to watch as she slips away into the depths. Moments later, mother and child reappear. Gilding beneath the boat, they offer me and my traveling companions a breathtaking look at their size and grace—the baby lovely and enormous, the mother like some unfathomable leviathan. Over and over they tease us with their presence: Either our boatman paddles to them or the inquisitive infant leads its mother to us. Both whales seem to delight in bumping or rubbing the bottom of the boat, a reminder of how easily they could crush us with the mere flip of a tail.
After disappearing for several minutes—an adult gray can stay submerged for twelve minutes before surfacing for air—mom comes back for yet another close encounter of the human kind. Once again she rests beneath us, rolled on her side with one of her huge, dark eyes peering straight up at me. Our gazes lock, as if we are both trying to discover some mystery hidden on the other side of the ocean’s looking glass. This time I keep my hand out of the water, and she continues to rise, breaking the surface and rubbing her head on the edge of the boat until, at last, we touch. Her skin is cool and smooth, like silky wet leather, while the small round barnacles that live on her have the texture of velvet. Sensitive to the stroke of my hand, she quickly shies away, and the baby takes her place, rolling slowly on my side of the boat and slapping my hand with her flipper. When mom returns, she announces her arrival with a spray of saltwater and gloriously bad breath, exhaling from her blowholes directly into my smiling face. The exhilarating bath charges over my body in a rush of goose bumps and adrenaline.
Seated back in my proper spot in the boat, camera in hand but not even remembering to take photos, I watch numbly as my companions scramble for their own turns with the two friendly whales. The sun bursts through the clouds and reflects in their shining eyes, making them seem younger and more alive. I wonder if they too have seen some unexplained wonder in the eye of the whale.
A company called Baja Expeditions organized my visit to their mangrove-lined lagoon on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula. For $995 I have been relieved of the normal Mexico travel worries about hotels, meals, and expensive car rentals. All I had to do was get myself to the colonial city of La Paz, a trip that was best accomplished by flying via Tucson on Aeroméxico airlines. The first evening, I was on my own to check out the bars and restaurants along the scenic La Paz waterfront. Early the next morning our group piled into two vans for the five-hour drive to Magdalena Bay, where we are spending three days and two nights aboard a wooden-hulled ship called the Don Jose. Sleeping accommodations are cramped—I’m sharing a cabin with two others—but the cooking is excellent, the beverages are cold, and the whales, well, the whales are everywhere.
Weighing as much as forty tons, gray whales are the only whales adapted to coastal waters and the only ones that exhibit the friendly behavior I experienced. Twenty years ago, for reasons unknown, grays began making close contact with humans in Magdalena and two other Mexican bays. Since whaling of grays was outlawed in 1937, and since a gray may live to be fifty years old, it is possible that whales began to make human contact only after there were few or no remaining whales with memories of man’s destruction.
Whales are believed to have been on earth for more than 50 million years. They once had legs, but unlike man and most other mammals, they returned to the sea, where they have long sparked our imagination. As our ability to master the oceans grew, one by one the whale populations of the world were decimated in short order: the right whales, so called because they were easy to kill and had plenty of blubber; the humpbacks, almost completely annihilated before we discovered their melodic song; the bowheads; and numerous others, all hunted to near-extinction by hard and determined men with hand-thrown harpoons. More difficult to pursue were the blue, fin, and minke whales, which fared well until the invention of the exploding-grenade harpoon in 1865. To stop the larger whales from sinking when killed. Hunters could harpoon them from the bow-mounted cannon of a steam-driven ship and pump them full of air through tubes, keeping them afloat for the harvest. By the beginning of this century one-hundred-foot whales were being hauled on deck, chopped into pieces, and cooking in giant sealed caldrons. The whale oil that was produced would be used in margarine, pharmaceuticals, and nitroglycerin explosives.
The discovery of the gray whales’ “nursery” in Magdalena Bay by whaler Charles Melville Scammon in 1856 attracted fleets of whalers to the lagoons of Baja. Although the grays fought back, earning the nickname devilfish for their habit of defending themselves and their young by ramming and staving the whalers’ skiffs, they were believed to be commercially if not biologically extinct by the end of the nineteenth century. The hunting of the few remaining gray whales continued until 1937, when the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling prohibited the killing of grays except by aboriginals for their own consumption.