There is something so thrilling and heart stopping at the same time when a whale swims under your boat curiously checking you out. These jumbo mammals, like elephants, grab my attention. Many times in the northwest, in the San Juan Islands the Orcas come alongside in numbers or swim in unison that you just want to reach out and touch. I am not sure if that comes from a generation of SeaWorld attendees prior to Black Fish when you thought they were cuddly and liked us.
I remember doing my daily morning walk around the deck of Crystal Harmony as we sailed along the Portuguese coast that I heard that distinctive blow – it was several more turns of the deck that I continued to hear the blow….for me that was magical. Though I don’t know what kind of whale it was I was so intrigued. I did find out that when a whale exhales, that breath is released at 300 miles per hour; that is a massive burst and in the sunlight it creates its own rainbow.
I read the book Song for the Ocean Blue by Carl Safina, it was fascinating, troubling and lead me to research more. On my trip in search of whales, I read Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson, which was enthralling. So earlier this year I traveled to Baja to go on a camping trip to be with the whales up close and personal.
They come nearly 6000 miles to Baja a long and arduous swim south, I only flew 2500 miles. But each year the female grays come to give birth in these sheltered and nutrient rich waters of Bahia Magdalena where they tend to their babies first few months. From the small fishing village of Lopez Mateos we took a boat out and were immediately greeted by a mother and calf perhaps only two weeks old. Here in the bay there are no natural predators so the babes can learn all they need from their mothers in these peaceful and calm waters. Nowhere else in the world do inquisitive mothers and calves approach boats and allow delighted humans to pet them.
We motored quietly and carefully through the bay to our private camp, passing long stretches of empty beaches alive with only shore birds and surprisingly, coyotes. Our seasonal campsite was set high on a dune with literally nothing around us. This is protected preserve land with no permanent structures except for a lighthouse on a compact pole. All around our camp everything was off limits except for the truly magnificent stretches of beach. Each evening we walked these out to the Pacific side to watch the sunset along the vast wide open area. Here we were so alone, the birds had gone to their roost, so it was silently quiet except for the wind and small waves lapping. In the orange sky we were blessed to have only dolphins swim alongside for company.
Each day we got in our flat bottom pangas and went into the bay's entrance to witness the whales spy hopping and swimming up to our boat to check us out. At the Boca (mouth) to the Pacific it is choppy to say the least, but in the bay the waters are calm. These gray whales are huge, city bus size huge, but silent except for that emission of air plumes that shoots up. The curiosity from them just thrills from me, they are thinkers. It is like looking into the eyes of dolphins, you know they are thinking. More than one gray propelled her enormous barnacle-encrusted head, ramrod straight, out of the sea in front of the boat. One jet-black eye surveyed us, here was another picture-perfect snapshot I was too startled and enthralled to take. I soon learned that videos were really the only way to capture the scene. We had our own marine biologist guide with us to keep us informed for the whole week. Like our captain he seemed to know where to look before a gray broke the surf. Cavorting through the water we counted up to 21 surrounding us. Beyond my wildest dreams.
Nestled on our cots in our canvas tent a mere few feet from the sea we woke to hear the explosive exhalation in the darkness, they were definitely within reach. Laying there, you are not sure if you are asleep and dreaming or awake and aching to see. Upon getting up and wrapped in a blanket we went outside, we could hear but not yet see the gathering in the shimmering morning marine fog. It was magical. Later we surmised because the Nat Geo Sea Lion expedition ship for passengers had entered the southern part of the bay and kept her engines running all night for the comfort of their passengers, but too much noise for all the mothers and calves. They all moved up to our front door to spend the night. We benefited from their thoughtlessness. It was a rare privilege indeed, sitting transfixed watching mothers and babes lazily tumble over each other or just “logging.” Just resting or snoozing close to the surface. I sat for the glorious morning hours as the sun rose and the fog slowly dissipated taking in this marvelous experience. Leaving later that day I literally had to pull myself away. It was the WOW of the trip, one I am not sure could be replicated. There is magic here, I feel so blessed and came home so much richer.
I strongly encourage you to view the video below to get the experience of the whales and how fortunate we get to learn about them.
https://youtu.be/qTsXfGVjm1w by Domenic Biagini @DolphinDroneDom