Our PBS television series Saving the Ocean has brought me to the best place I’ve ever awoken on St. Patrick’s Day—Laguna San Ignacio, Baja, Mexico. We’re on the Pacific side, south of central on this extraordinarily rugged 800-mile peninsula. It’s a pretty bare place, sere and severe. The wind seems never to cease. And everything has thorns.
Oddly enough, we’re in this dust-blown desert to see whales. Gray Whales were hunted to extinction in the Atlantic. And here they barely escaped the same. Whalers in the 1800s found the three major lagoon systems (San Ignacio, Scammon’s, and Magdalena Bay) where they come in late winter to give birth and to mate, and they showed no mercy. But some survived that holocaust, and more than a century later they recovered numbers enough to approach, it is thought, their pre-hunting abundance.
Not that the whales had taken it without a fight. Gray Whales earned a reputation for fierce resistance when harpooned or defending their young. Many a harpooner found himself in the water surrounded by the splinters of his boat. Whalers called the Grays “devilfish,” of all things, for trying hard to stay alive.
In the early 1970s, when there were still far fewer whales here than there are now, a local fisherman named Pachico Mayoral found himself being approached by one of the feared whales while alone in his small boat. To his amazement—and for perhaps the first time in the history of the world—the whale closed the gap entirely, approaching the man so closely that he reached out his hand and, utterly astonished, he stroked its furrowed back.
In that moment the world changed just a little. An added dose of compassion and a little understanding, two beings brought together by the curiosity of Life for Life, Pachico and the whale were ambassadors for an immediate declaration of peace between their two nations.
These years later Pachico and his son Jesus bring curious tourists from distant lands to visit with these whales. And the whales bring their babies to meet them. In all the world, there is nothing quite like it.
We arrived by charter flight—a single-engine Piper Saratoga owned by Eddie Kisfaludy (oceansaloft.net)—to save what would be a two-day drive, and not an easy drive in a desert where the road twists, the truck drivers veer, and cows wander on and off the pavement in the moonlight, if there is any.
Right now there is none.
Director Dave Huntley, cameraman Dan Lyons, soundman Tim Wessel, and I arrived late in the day and after dinner the stars were extraordinary. Mars had risen in the east, and in the west Jupiter and Venus appeared extraordinarily close together and shone exceptionally bright—by far the brightest objects in a sky absolutely crammed with stars. So bright, they left a shine on the lagoon, the sun’s light reflecting off the planets, off the lagoon, over the backs of whales swimming unseen in the night, and up into my eyes.
Drawn into the heavens, one among many objects in the Milky Way, and with a stellar sense of awe and peace, I drifted into my tiny shorefront cabin and into bed.