By Nancy Harmon
Last spring, I made my fifth trip to play with grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, 500 miles south of San Diego. In previous blog articles, I wrote about the thrill of making contact there with the giant grey whales and their calves, the unique ecology of the area, and the awesome example of eco-tourism at the eco-resort Kuyima, where life is basic and simple, resources are used thoughtfully, and the footprint left behind almost seems to disappear in the sand. Over the years, one of the best parts of the trip for me has been watching how people react to this incredible experience.
My husband always says that when I returned from my first trip with a friend, I was “glowing.” Whatever that means, I know I was awed and humbled by watching as these great creatures approached our small boat full of humans and hovered playfully, mothers in the background and calves swimming up to us and frolicking, close enough to even be touched. I wanted to share the experience with everyone I knew.
Humans had brutally hunted these creatures until 1947, and fewer than 70 years later, they were approaching us and wanting to connect, for reasons we could only guess. At one point this year, we had three mamas and three babies surrounding our boat. The water was churning with tails and fins and huge submerged bodies, and yet we weren’t frightened. It is still a miracle to me.
When you look at the faces of people as they first encounter the whales, you can see without a doubt that, at least momentarily, it is a kind of transformational experience. Some gasp in amazement at the first sighting, some sit in silent awe, some have tears in their eyes, some send up a silent prayer of thanks. By the time the boat heads back, everyone is grinning and babbling like a five-year-old. No one is sheepish about having spent the last couple of hours trying to attract the whales by singing the first verse of every song they can remember, leaning over the side of the boat and madly splashing water or calling in baby-talk voices, “Come see us, sweet baby.” We’ve all done it, and we’ll do the same thing the next day.
We have now traveled down to this lagoon over five years with more than 60 fellow travelers as part of my husband Roger’s Worldviews 2000 travel business. Each time, we have experienced a sense of peace and wonder after contact with the whales. The experience runs deep for most people, and over the years we have heard many responses.
One year at Kuyima, we met Oscar, a Spaniard who had found Kuyima by chance while traveling. He was now employed at the resort. Oscar had been working for a large company, planning development in the Arabian Gulf region for seven years. After discovering time and again that his carefully laid plans for thoughtful, sustainable development had been ignored in favor of huge profits for multinational corporations, he realized his were just token efforts, and he had pretty much wasted those seven years. Still, quitting a job with a good, steady paycheck was a tough decision, and he left feeling discouraged, hopeless, and scared. He set out on a journey to find himself and his future, and he stumbled upon this lovely part of Baja. We met him at the end of his two-month adventure at San Ignacio, looking happy and healthy and eager to return home. Even though he hadn’t figured out the rest of his life yet, he said the whales had taught him that his next job would have to be something that supported all of life on our fragile planet, even if it meant less money.
Another year, we traveled with a couple who had just become grandparents for the first time. Pamela said that trying to explain the experience with the whales was like explaining what it was like to hold her baby grandson for the first time. Later on in the trip, she dreamed that she had placed that baby in the mouth of a mother whale, who received the child gently.
My friend Amy traveled to the lagoon with us last year. One evening during the trip, we were discussing the Islamophobia surrounding us today. She described it as a fear of the “other,” strangers who are different from us and whom we have yet to meet. But, she said, when you’ve looked into the eye of a whale with such a huge, intelligent brain and marveled at how they bring their babies to meet us even after being hunted almost to extinction, you realize what we have to learn from them: that in order to make peace with the others we fear, we need to approach and meet them with open hearts and hands, offering what we have.
My favorite lagoon legend is about the time in the 1980s when Mitsubishi wanted to expand its salt-processing plant in the nearby town of Guerrero Negro into the salt flats near San Ignacio Lagoon. Local fishermen feared that silt from the process would pollute the lagoon and eventually block the whales’ entrance from the Pacific, and they were very against the development. They invited the president of Mexico at the time to bring his wife and children down for a trip out to see the whales. They were out on the lagoon for several hours. Upon returning to land, the president assured the fishermen that there would be no expansion of the salt plant.
I often wonder what a trip to meet the whales would do for some of our politicians in Washington who want to take away environmental regulations and get rid of the EPA. All who have visited the lagoon with us have returned home with renewed awe and reverence for the diversity of life and the beauty of our planet. Richard Louv writes in his book Last Child in the Woods about how in the 21st century, our children (and probably most adults) suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder”: too much time in front of screens, too little time out in nature, where we experience the wonder of this precious planet and are moved to work to protect it. These whales are the best cure for Nature Deficit Disorder that I can think of.
Questions to Consider
- Have you ever experienced eco-tourism? If so, how would you define it, and how is it different from other kinds of tourism? If you haven’t experienced it, look it up on the Internet, and discuss with your classmates how it seems to differ from traditional tourism.
- How much time did you spend exploring natural places outside when you were a child? Are things different for children today? Do you agree with Richard Louv that time in nature is important for children? Why or why not?
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