Tour of coastal waters gets up close and personal with whales
Jay Solmonson, Staff Writer
SAN IGNACIO, Mexico
Call me a scaredy-cat, but there's something unsettling about floating in a skiff the size of a double-wide coffin in a lagoon full of whales.
Maybe reading "Moby-Dick"during my whale-watching trip to Baja California was a bad idea. Visions of a pitiless sea, tons of angry whale rising from the depths, splintered planks and my bleaching bones swam in my head as we drifted in San Ignacio Lagoon.
This lagoon, along with Scammon's Lagoon and Bahia Magdalena, are among the world's best whale-watching destinations. All three Pacific Coast bays are winter homes for gray whales, and ever January, February and into March the lagoons become virtual maternity wards for thousands of them.
A panga ride among these whales - which can weigh up to 40 tons and measure up to 50 feet long - is one of the wonders of Baja.
Most passengers Lindblad Expedition's Sea Lion said they'd made the trip just for the chance to shake flippers with the great beasts of the deep.
Our eight-day journey was far shorter than that of the whales. Gray whales make one of the longest of all mammalian annual migrations - 10,000 to 14,000 miles round trip. In October, they leave their feeding grounds in Alaska's Bering Sea for a two-to-three-month trip south. Then they stay in the lagoons for another two to three months, allowing their calves to fatten up, before they all swim back north.
Laws that now protect the gray whales were far from the thoughts of Capt. Ahab's ilk, as 19th-century whalers hunted them to the edge of extinction.
But those days are long gone. Today's whale hunters wield cameras, not harpoons, and have traded personal privations for comfort. And the mother whales, nicknamed "devilfish" by whalers because of their violent defensive behavior, have nothing to fear.
Aboard the Sea Lion, the only peril faced by the 70 passengers was overindulging at the lunch buffet.
We left the Sea Lion docked in Santa Rosalia on the Gulf of California and traveled overland by bus to the desert oasis town of San Ignacio.
A guacamole-and-chip break in the tree-lined town plaza was followed by a visit to the 18th-century Mission San Ignacio de Loyola. The 4-foot-thick walls made the mission's church a cool and quiet refuge where contemplation came naturally.
And we had a lot to contemplate.
Since landing in La Paz and joining our ship near Magdalena Bay on the Pacific Coast, we'd been caught in the net of Baja's charms.
Thirty years before, my wife and I had driven the Baja Highway, Mexican Route 1, for 1,000 miles from Cabo San Lucas to Tijuana. We'd driven a rustbucket VW Bug that acted like it had a tank full of Raid, and stayed in rooms that would make a cucaracha cringe. But this time we'd hanged the expense from the yardarm
(Lindblad's rates start at $3,490 per person, double occupancy, for an eight-day trip.)
We were delighted to be cruising south along the cactus-lined shores of the Pacific coast of Baja in our floating oasis. From sunrise to sunset, we could join other whale-watchers on the bow. And always, a naturalist with eyes like radar was scanning the ocean for whales.
Frequent sightings were called out in the military tradition of using an imaginary watch, with high noon being dead ahead. So, when a naturalist spotted a whale, she'd forgo the wild shout of Ahab's day — "Thar she blows!"— with an excited call of "Whale at two o'clock!"
All binoculars would aim at the spot of the blow to see a geyser of mist hanging in the air. If need be, the ship would slow, so we could better observe the ocean's superstars.
Most often, the whales would be humpbacks, with their broad and rounded heads poking just enough above the surface to exhale and inhale.
To our delight, after a few minutes a humpback would sound (go into a long or deep dive), throwing his fluke skyward, exposing a great tail stretching up to 18 feet wide. They're called humpbacks because as they dive, they bend their backs and point their noses down while gracefully raising their tails above the water.
Not only are these whales elegant divers, but they can stop the show, along with the ship, with their acrobatics — launching themselves completely out of the water (a maneuver called breaching). When 30 to 40 tons of flying whale sail above the ocean just off the bow, mature adults ooh and ah like kindergartners.
The whales share the limelight with giant manta rays that also soar above the waves. Above, brown pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants and frigate birds patrol the skies.
Then there are the pods of dolphins, sometimes 100 or more to a pod, which would glide and leap alongside our ship. The daredevils among them would ride our bow wake, swimming close to the ship. We would peek over the side and be hypnotized by the sound of the water crashing against the bow and by the sight of dolphins taking a joy ride with us.
Not all the fun of this trip occurred at sea, though. Every day we would make stops on desert islands or along the coast. Some of Baja's coastline is little changed from the time five centuries ago when Spanish conquistadors landed here.
Those visitors, however, did not spend their days as we did, riding Zodiacs, snorkeling among sea lions and kayaking above tropical fish.
Baja is a scantily populated wilderness, with 75 percent of the peninsula's population living along the border with the United States. Much of it is an inhospitable desert, but we looked on it and saw a beautiful, bone-dry, spiny wonderland.
There was a brief stop in Cabo San Lucas, where buckets of beer, shopping malls and time-share vendors tempt mariners too long at sea. But we weren't buying.
We preferred hikes through arroyos where only the flora was out to stick it to us. Hikes offered encounters — at a distance, preferably — with cardon (the world's largest cactus), prickly pears, jumping chollas, Spanish bayonets and old-man cactus. Thankfully, we were saved from becoming human pin cushions by first-rate naturalists, who always had us back on board for drinks and snacks before dinner.
One evening, on a forbidding desert island, the Sea Lion's crew threw us a beach party under the stars.
Ultimately, the trip found us on that skiff in San Ignacio Lagoon, where our captain
promptly cut the engine. We were becalmed: just a blue sky, a blue sea and tranquillity. We could only hear the sound of small waves lapping against the sides of our panga.
I'd read the stories about Moby-Dick, Jonah and Pinocchio. So I wasn't buying all that nonsense about the gray whale's diet of krill and small fish. And what was all that talk about "friendlies" — the whales said to be curious enough to slide over for a skiff-side visit with humans?
About this time, the screaming started. Screams of delight.
A mother drifted over, her calf just under one of her flippers. They were two shadowy hulks blending with the blue of the sea. Even the baby was huge (they weigh up to 1,500 pounds at birth, and this calf had been nursing overtime).
I was a bit concerned when Mom bumped our skiff with her back, shaking us the way a cat might tease a mouse. But she meant no harm.
Then the calf poked its rubbery head up alongside us, nuzzled our boat, and looked us right in the eye before letting us have it with a whale-sized sneeze.
We literally crawled all over one another to touch her. Thewhale's skin was slick, smooth, cool and soft, like an inflated inner tube.
And that face! It was a face only a mother whale and a panga full of gleeful gringos could love.
If you go
-Whale-watching. Landlubbers can drive to the lagoons of Baja and hire a local panga driver to take them out for a spin among the whales. But it's a long drive and the facilities are rustic. We were delighted to go by boat with Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com; 800- 397-3348). Eight-day trips are offered in January, February and March, when the whales winter here. Prices from $3,490 per person, double occupancy. Other companies offering similar trips are: Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794 http://www.wildernesstravel.com) and World Wildlife Fund (888-WWF-TOUR http://www.worldwildlife.org).
-Who should go. Nature and wildlife-lovers of all ages. Pre-teens on board loved it, as did their parents and grandparents.
-Photography. Get ready to bear down. Bring long lenses and a fast trigger finger. Whales may breach (propel themselves above the surface), but there's no countdown for launch. When they explode out of the ocean, you have a couple of seconds to focus and shoot. Sunsets are a sure bet. Even a snap-happy rookie shutterbug with a point-and-shoot camera can bring home enchanting photos.