Petting the Gray Whales
Each winter from December through April, a magnificent event takes place along the Eastern Pacific shoreline. This is a birthing and nursing ground for the Gray Whale. A primal calling brings forth the longest known mammal migration. From the cold Arctic waters of the Bering Sea, Pacific Gray Whales make their way south to the remote warm water lagoons of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.
In March, 2004, I was fortunate enough to have an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. I was flown by friends in a beautiful new, private jet to Laguna San Mexico, about half way down the long Baja peninsula’s Pacific Coast. San Ignacio is not an easy location to get to – private plane or a very long drive on a bumpy dirt road is just about it!
San Ignacio does not have fancy hotels, but the casual, somewhat rustic facilities, while relatively clean, and not bad, were not much more than two twin beds, a small bathroom with only a shower and toilet. We were just there to pet the whales so the plan was to arrive on Friday afternoon, have dinner, spend the night, spend time with the whales on Saturday morning and fly out to another town in Mexico for mucho margaritas and a nice dinner.
The next morning we woke early, donned our life-vests, loaded in our skiff and off we went into the Lagoon. The most amazing thing was seeing whales everywhere. I’ve been whale watching but nothing like this.
There were whales ahead the bow and whales on the stern, port, starboard, almost every where you looked you couldn’t help but see a whale! It was incredible. Every once in a while a whale would start to get close to the skiff and the captain would turn the engine off and within a minute or two a whale would come over to the side of the boat. While we anxiously were trying to figure out which side he or she might pop up on they would swim under the boat, almost teasing us. Like we were playing a game!
These friendly Gray Whales actually seek out human interaction. Often, it seemed as if the mothers with calves were approaching the skiffs to present their calves to us, encouraging us to scratch their backs and baleen as they lounge around our skiffs. The mother would get below the calf and gently hold it up. We were told that the babies don’t breathe well at first and the mothers are teaching them to swim and breath. Over the years, this extraordinary behavior has become a regular occurrence only in San Ignacio Lagoon
I can’t explain to you the feeling of rubbing this guy’s spongy head. Scratching his little face just like I would my dogs. Looking him in the eye while his mom watched in the distance. He smiled at me, I’m sure.
The females are larger than the males and grow to about 50 feet. We were surrounded by whales blowing, flipping their flukes, or tail fins, diving and coming back up. The babies are about six feet long when they’re born and weigh about a ton. The babies love to be petted.
The Mexican government is very strict about who’s allowed near the whales. You have to go with an authorized guide and there are groups of government observers who watch from shore with high-powered telescopes to make sure no one hurts or disturbs the whales. Recognized for its importance in birthing and raising young whales, Laguna San Ignacio is a protected bioreserve under Mexican law, and has received numerous international recognitions.
For anyone interested, there are ways to camp there and I hear on the 5 to 7 day tours you’re likely to hear the whales sing at night as you drift to sleep in your tent on the beach. Enchanting. Magical. Very worthwhile.