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. Gliding 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 cooked 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. Russia and Japan did not sign the agreement, however, and a Western Pacific population of grays is now extinct. By contrast, the California gray whale population rebounded to 4,000 by 1960, and today there are an estimated 25,000, all of them making what is the longest migration by any mammal—10,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean to Mexico and back.
In preparation for this annual journey, the grays load up on seafood in the waters of the Arctic. Feeding around the clock for months, they scoop up mouthfuls of tiny crustaceans from the Arctic seabed and filter out the mud and sand using their baleen plates. Harvested at one time for use as corset stays, baleen (or whalebone) is made of a fibrous protein called keratin that grows in long bristles in the jaws of gray whales. In November, when Arctic waters begin to freeze, the whales head south, fasting for most of the five months until they return to the Arctic. During this period, a forty-ton whale may lose ten tons of its body weight as it lives off fat stores of blubber not needed in the warmer waters farther south. The calves are born on the journey south, usually off the coast of Southern California, coming into the world fifteen feet long and weighing two thousand pounds.
“No one has ever seen the birth of a gray whale,” says our Baja Expeditions tour guide, Alan Cortash, as we eat lunch in the ship’s dining room. Cortash also describes for us how a baby whale nurses: The mother whale extends her nipple and flexes certain muscles to inject her heavy, creamy milk into the baby’s mouth. “The babies continue to nurse all winter in the lagoons,” Cortash says, “swimming constantly with their mothers, almost always against the tide, presumably to build their strength for the journey north.”
As our time aboard the Don Jose passes in the company of whales, my appreciation for our early contact with the friendly mother-baby pair grows by the hour. We do not find any more whales displaying such curiosity—and, indeed, in an unusually wet and chilly winter in Magdalena Bay, ours is one of the only groups to experience such intimate contact. But there is never a shortage of whales: One afternoon near the tidal entrance to the bay, we can see fifty of sixty of them in the area around us, many of them “spyhopping”—emerging from the water head first, spinning gracefully until their eyes appear above the surface, then quickly sinking out of sight. Just beyond the breakers, the horizon is filled with hundreds of heart-shaped twelve-foot-high spouts. We gasp and cheer in unison each time we see a whale breach, bringing perhaps 75 percent of its body out of the water and crashing back into the ocean with a gigantic splash.
Some of the best whale watching is of whales mating, which generally involves multiple males with any one female. Experts believe that gray whales thrive on body contact, although unlike certain species of butterflies, and unlike mating rhinoceroses, the coupling grays do not remain hooked up for hours at a time. The group sexual activity may go on for hours, yet any given sexual act may be over within minutes. Still, it is clear why the Mexican government strictly regulates all whale watching in Magdalena Bay—not just for the protection of the whales but for the safety of the watchers. Our boatmen, Felix and Luis, who have years of experience guiding tours here, are always careful to keep the pangas away from the mating whales, a wise precaution considering that a decade ago a boat collided with an adult gray and two whale watchers died.
When no whales are approaching the boat, we content ourselves with motoring slowly in the path of one or more whales, hoping for a good photo opportunity—perhaps a ten-foot-wide tail sticking straight up in the air just before a dive. Like land animals, whales leave an indication of the path they have taken. When the whale submerges, the upstroke of its tail makes a large flat circle on the surface, and because the water keeps flowing up to the surface from below, the circle remains for quite some time after the whale has moved on. These “tailprints” are not marred even by the wake of a motorized skiff, so a series of them can be easily followed.
The more whales we see, the more I begin to realize that each has its own distinctive appearance. Every gray whale has a low hump, six to twelve knobs farther down the spine, and an upper jaw that overhangs the lower, giving its mouth the appearance of a gigantic parrot’s beak. While the babies are uniformly gray at birth, the adults have a lighter, mottled color that is a result of barnacles, whale lice, and scarred patches, the patterns and shades of which are unique to each whale. It is also possible to identify the older whales by the bite marks on their fins and tails made by hungry orcas, or killer whales. Toothed whales (such as Shamu) eat everything from fish and seals to both baby and adult grays. Hunting in packs much like wolves or hyenas, the orcas gang up on a much larger gray and drown it by latching onto its tail, then pushing it below the surface, or the orcas might rip out the gray’s tongue, causing it to bleed to death.
Unlike orcas, gray whales are no longer in danger of being captured by man. The only large whale ever maintained in captivity as a baby gray netted in 1971 by an expedition from San Diego’s Sea World. Eighteen feet long and weighing four thousand pounds, Gigi was placed in a large tank for scientific study and public viewing. Eight months later she was eating a ton of squid per day and growing too fast for any tank to hold her. A year after her capture se was released into the Pacific during the migrating season and has subsequently been seen in the wild.
Late on our final afternoon, as the pangas return my companions to the Don Jose for a farewell margarita celebration, I ask our boatman to drop me off for a walk on nearby Magdalena Island, a seventy-mile-long finger of sand that separates the bay from the ocean. As I climb from the mangrove brakes into the dunes, the ship and all civilization disappear behind me. As far as I can see, the shifting sand ripples in endless patterns of wind and wave—millions of parallel lines stretching up and down the dunes like tracings of the hands of a thousand-fingered god. After a two-mile hike, much of the way following the tracks of two coyotes who in turn were following the tracks of a fleeing rabbit, I finally top the last row of the dunes for a view of the roaring ocean.
My jacket zipped tight against the cold, I sit on the beach surrounded by the treasures I have found nearby: a tiny sea horse, the giant shell of a green sea turtle, and a massive bleached-white whale bone. Staring out at several whale spouts beyond the surf, I begin to ponder the vastness of the natural world, whose mysteries continue to defy our full understanding. In places such as this, in the songs of the shore birds that chase away the chill of the ocean from which we came, and in the knowing eyes of the earth’s oldest and greatest creatures, the majesty of life, on rare occasions, reaches out and touches us.
Reservations on Aeroméxico can be booked by calling 800-237-6639.
To contact Baja Expeditions call 800-843-6967.