Shortly after breakfasting in a sand-floored adobe dining hall whose thick walls are made of old car tires, we boarded 2 outboard-powered open boats called pangas. Our boats were captained by Pachico Mayoral and his son Jesus, who started guiding visitors to the whales here when he was 14 (pachicosecotours.com).
Pachico told us that after that terrifying approach by the first whale in the early 1970s, he felt that he and that whale had made peace, and that “the whales have forgiven us for all we did to them.”
I’d seen two whales blow while standing on the beach, and that seemed impressive. But we went in a different direction, a half-hour boat ride to where the whales were “more concentrated.”
I certainly didn’t mind the ride. The weather was nice and I enjoyed seeing Bottlenose Dolphins and birds like brant, grebes, scoters, terns, godwits, and sandpipers. And a coyote trotting along the desert shore. This desert lagoon seemed full of life.
With all that to occupy my attention, in no time we were among so many spouting, rolling whales that even within the arc of a glance around, I could not count them. It seemed there were always a dozen or so within a few hundred yards of us. Overall, Jesus told me, there were about three hundred whales in the lagoon. (There total population now stands over 20,000, coast-wide.)
They come to give birth and to mate. So pregnant females as well as males and females seeking mating opportunities all enter the lagoon in winter and spend several months. The babies put on about 50 pounds a day. Now one to two months old, most are around 20 feet long.
But they look and act like babies. They’re oriented to their moms and they’re active and playful. Not that the adults aren’t active. We frequently saw enormous heads rise straight up and slide down again, “spy-hopping.” And there was the occasional lagoon-detonating full breach, visible over long distances.
This place is very well managed. A world Biosphere Reserve, the whale-watching is limited to core areas, with other areas off-limits. Sixteen boats, max, can use the whale-watching area at any one time, and only for an hour and a half. A guard, hired by the tour operators, “to keep it a nice experience,” says Jesus, polices the rules. The boat operators are skilled at letting the whales set their own perimeters. The boats don’t chase or hassle them here.
We saw many whales, as I was saying, and watched the boats and their passengers. Soon it was time for the boats to do in. Except ours; we had a special filming permit. And soon it was the lagoon, the whales, and just us.
One departing boat had called Jesus about a particularly friendly female and calf, and we slowly motored over there. And sure enough, we encountered a completely mellow 40-foot mother and her frisky 20-foot-long baby. The calf came right to our boat, and when its eye met mine what I saw was not a look of wisdom or of caution, but the innocent curiosity we are all born with and that we bring, before the hardening of the world sets in. It reminded me of a puppy-open, curious, and anticipating a good time.
I knew that every boat that comes here hopes to encounter “a friendly,” a whale that will tolerate a human touch. Still, I was wondering about bothering these beasts with the intrusion of our urge to make contact. My concern was dispelled by Jesus instructing, “If it comes to us, you have to pet it. If you don’t, it might leave.”
The baby lifted its head alongside the boat. With no hesitation I landed my palm on its snout and stroked its head. It was soft, rubbery, with a few short bristles you could easily see and feel. Cleary the animal easily feels you. I patted it more vigorously and it half-spun and presented its chin, which I duly scratched. I talked to it as I would have talked to a puppy. It was that kind of interaction. Safe, playful, innocent—and understanding; the whales knew the drill.
I thought about people who once came here to kill these whales, what Melville called, “so remorseless a havoc.” I thought of these wide-eyed innocents following their moms toward Alaska and the Killer Whales who, experienced in interception , would trigger terror en route and the full fury of these mothers to defend their babes.
Most of the while, the mother simply lay there. But a couple of times she put her head in reach. She was vastly bulkier, of course. And her body itself was a habitat to barnacles and to the crab-like whale lice that eat dead skin. When she rolled, her bottom looked like a boat ramp, like you could easily walk out on her.
The experience was quite moving. Surprisingly so. I’ve seen many whales, often at very close range. But these interactions, unique in the world as far as I know, represent the relationship with animals and nature that I wish we could have everywhere, all the time.
At this point in the history of humans and the world, that’s not possible. In many ways the world is a harsh and unfair place. Humans are the world’s best chance to set a few things right, but so far we are a long way from being capable of fulfilling our, and the world’s, potential.
It was interesting to me that here, in this desert, where we would say the people are very poor, those who live here are, in fact, rich enough in spirit to afford the whales respect and peace.
“Often, over all these years,” Pachico told me, “I have wondered what message the whales are trying to give us. But what I have learned from being with them is that the world is for us to share.”
If only we could all simply learn just that. Perhaps that message is so big, it does indeed take a whale to bring it out in us.