There’s only one long, narrow, winding road from Tijuana to the southern tip of the skinny peninsula of Baja, Mexico, and it leads to one of the most spectacular encounters with nature that a human can have. My husband, travel companions and I have just returned from frolicking with grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. The experience is a wonder of the natural world and gave me great hope that we humans still have a chance to heal and coexist peacefully with nature.
Between October and April every year, grey whales make the 6,000 mile migration down from the frigid waters of Alaska to the warmer lagoons of Baja, some of them pregnant, others looking for mates. Pregnant females arrive first and deliver their calves in December and January; juveniles and mature males and females follow them. Their huge bodies fill the lagoons, rising gracefully above the surface to breathe, blowing rainbow arcs of water, spyhopping and breaching. In the silence of the lagoon, you can sometimes hear whales breathing all around you.
People go out into the lagoon in small boats holding 10 people with local fishermen as captains. The mothers and babies often approached our boats, backs rising out of the water in perfect synchronicity. They might dive under at the last minute, swim around the boat blowing bubbles, roll over playfully on top of one another, or cover passengers with a flood of water as they exhaled. But miraculously, quite often a mama and baby would come right up to the boat to meet the humans inside. We could see their massive bodies outlined under the water as they got closer and then all of a sudden, a head would pop up against the side of the boat with a great rush of water, staying long enough for a scratch, a hug or even a kiss. The babies are smooth with an occasional coarse hair on their cool and rubbery skin. Their mothers are covered with as many as 200 pounds of rough barnacles. These encounters happen over and over on some days; on other days the mothers have a different agenda for their little ones, and they rapidly swim on by as if training for the long migration back to Alaska in just a few months.
Part of the wonder of the experience is the gentleness of these enormous creatures. Babies weigh as much as 2,000 pounds at birth and can gain 50 pounds a day on the 50 gallons of rich milk they consume. Mothers are 45-49 feet long and weigh up to 36 tons, the size of four elephants. It was terrifying at first as their giant bodies came so close to the boats, but quickly we began to understand their behavior and how well mothers and babies know their own strength. One swipe of a tail or a hard bump against these small boats and they would capsize, and yet that never happens.
There is a local story that at one time, Mitsubishi was planning to extend its salt-processing operation, located in the nearby city of Guerrero Negro three hours to the north, to the salt flats near San Ignacio Lagoon. The company insisted that there would be almost no environmental impact, but scientists found that, in fact, such an operation would fill the mouth of the lagoon with silt, thereby blocking the entrance of the whales. The people of the local community invited the president of Mexico at the time to visit the lagoon with his family. They went out in two different boats, and the president watched his children’s excitement and wonder as they made contact with the whales. When he returned to shore, he assured the people that no salt plant would be built near the lagoon.
The experience of touching a whale and perhaps even looking into its eyes calls for words like “mystery” and “miracle.” After each encounter, people return to shore with a huge grin but lost in a reverie of awe and wonder. Why do these huge mammals, called Devil Fish when they were being hunted almost to extinction before 1947, want to meet us? We speculate endlessly: Curiosity about fellow mammals? Pride in their gorgeous babies? Pure playfulness?
Doug Thompson has visited the lagoon for thirty years. In his book Whales: Touching the Mystery, he speculates that since the ban on whaling, whales have understood and communicated with one another that human beings are now safe, even though some of them may still carry the scars of whaling days. He believes that they have forgiven us and have something to teach us humans about forgiveness. He calls San Ignacio “the lagoon of forgiveness” and describes it with awe. Whatever the reason for these incredible encounters, they leave a deep and lasting sense of reverence for our natural world and its wild creatures on all who are lucky enough to have the experience.
Our next blog will describe the lagoon itself and the exciting ecotourism in the area.
Watch the video of whale encounters on Doug Thompson’s website, www.dolphinworks.com
- Describe the closest encounter with a wild animal that you have had.
- What do you think is the reason that grey whales want to meet humans?
- Not everyone can visit the whales in Mexico. In this highly technical world of ours, what are other ways human beings can develop a love of and respect for the natural world? Do you think it’s important that we do this? Why or why not?