|Let our clients tell their stories about their excursions with Baja Ecotours
+ Dick Russell's trips to San Ignacio Lagoon
Noted author Dick Russell talks about his trip to San Ignacio Lagoon. "This trip was truly unforgettable" notes Russell. "There's no other way to say it - these whales are coming up TO BE PETTED!"
By Dick Russell
Author of Eye of the Whale
Los Angeles, CA, March, 2002
I first met Maldo and Johnny four years ago (1998), when I was researching my book "Eye of the Whale" (Simon & Schuster, 2001). For the past several seasons, I've made it a point to stay at their terrific camp on my visits toLaguna San Ignacio. Not just for the ambience, of course (the comfortable tents-with-cots, the outstanding cooking by Maldo's wife Catalina, the margaritas at sunset, a night sky to die for) - but because no other camp along the lagoon has guides with that same "sixth sense" of where the friendly whales are.
Last year's trip, on which I was accompanied by my literary agent and her husband, was truly unforgettable. At one point, our panga was surrounded by not one - but THREE PAIRS of mothers-and-babies, all looking for an opening toward our outstretched hands. I've never seen anything like this. And I'll always remember my agent's husband, a New Yorker through-and-through, suddenly exclaiming: "I've always been someone who couldn't stand people to get anthropomorphic about animals! But there's just no other way to say it - these whales are coming up TO BE PETTED!" There are other camps along the lagoon, but none I know of with the friendly atmosphere and natural feeling for the whales that you find at “Campo Cortez”.
+ James Dorsey: "My wife and I found heaven on earth"
My idea of relaxation is floating in a small panga surrounded by a couple hundred tons of agitated mammals. My wife and I do this every year in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja Mexico.
By JAMES DORSEY
Los Angeles, California
My idea of relaxation is floating in a small panga surrounded by a couple hundred tons of agitated mammals. My wife and I do this every year in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja Mexico. Our annual hosts are Johnny Friday and Maldo Fischer of the Baja Ecotours. I must admit to a personal prejudice here, for over the years, these two gentlemen have become close friends. However, when bobbing on the water over a thirty ton animal, it pays to be with the best.
For reasons known only to the whales and God, the Grey whale comes here each year not only to bear its young, but also to seek out human contact. It is one thing to pet a whale in a Sea Park or watch it through glass. It is nothing like being on the open ocean and having a thirty foot whale gently take your hand in its mouth while it looks you in the eye.
San Ignacio Lagoon is one of those very rare places where two different species deliberately come to intermingle. It is a magical place, and I have never been disappointed.
I have touched and petted dozens of whales. I have had them bring their babies up to me, proud as any mother can be. I have watched them nurse, and been fluke slapped for getting too close while they mated. I have watched them breech and had them spy-hop me to see how curious man must look to them.
At night, we fall asleep listening to them blow outside our tent while coyotes howl at the moon. At low tide, I like to walk through the lagoon, looking for the tiny octopus that dig into the sand and mark their boundary by piling stones outside the entrance.
I have watched Osprey carry off rabbits, and seen coyotes catch clams by sticking their tail into the shell when it breathes, then take it to a rock and smash it open.
God works His magic in San Ignacio Lagoon, and it is why I will be there again next year.
+ Rick Harbo: The friendly Gray whales of San Ignacio Lagoon
Travel writer and whale enthusiast Rick Harbo and his daughter Jennifer travel from Vancouver Island, Canada to witness the friendly behaviour of the Gray Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon.
By Rick Harbo
Nanaimo, BC Canada
We jostle and shake for four hours as we slowly make our way out to the lagoon. My daughter, Jennifer and I are travelling to see what the locals call the "desert whales" of Mexico. It is March and the road is wet and often divides into several tracks. Johnny, our driver, proceeds cautiously, as he knows repairs take time and parts are not readily available in this remote area of the Baja Peninsula. For over 12 years, Johnny Friday has driven this road to Campo Cortez at San Ignacio Lagoon, on the Pacific coast. He developed a friendship and eventually a partnership with a local fisherman, Maldo Ficher. Together they built a nature retreat on the remote desert lagoon and formed a whale watching business, the Baja Ecotours.
We stop at the side of the road for a drink and a stretch. I quickly snap off a roll of film. We were amazed at the diversity of cactus along our journey across the Baja Peninsula. The world's tallest cactus, the Cordon cactus, grows to 60 feet, and often dominates the landscape. Dr. Marie Dalcourt, our naturalist for the trip, advises that there are several hundred species of cactus found in this desert region, ranging from giant barrel cactus to the rambling growth of the Galloping Cactus. The Mexican Fence Post cactus is often planted in rows to make a living fence. Mexico has more species and specimens of cactus than any other country in the world.
Our excitement grows as a row of white canvas tents come into view. They aresituated on a low bank at the edge of the water. This is to be our base camp for the next few days as we journey out into the lagoon to view the Gray whales. San Ignacio Lagoon is famous for it? friendly whales and we wonder if we will have the good fortune to rub and scratch one of these giants. The lagoon is one of the few undeveloped breeding grounds for Gray whales, a haven before they make their long annual migration north to the Bering Sea to feed. This 10,000 km trip is the longest migration of any mammal.
Jennifer and I have often witnessed the Gray whales in the spring as they quickly passed by Vancouver Island on their way north. There is an active whale watching industry on the west coast of Vancouver Island that views 35 to 50 Gray whales that do not migrate any farther north than Vancouver Island. They spend the spring and summer feeding on herring spawn, a variety of planktonic animals in the water and ghost shrimp and worms from the sea floor. The Gray whale is the only whale known to feed on the bottom, rolling on its side and scooping up a mouthful of sand and mud. Dr. Jim Darling and underwater photographer Flip Nicklin confirmed that the massive tongue acts as a plunger, first to vacuum up the sediment and then to force the water and mud out through the baleen plates to screen out a meal.
As evening falls, we meet in the dining hut or palapa for a margarita, followed by a wonderful dinner of tortilla shells, beans, rice and local fish. We plan to set off to our tent for the night and Johnny reminds Jen and me to shake our shoes in the morning, a precaution to avoid the wrath of the local scorpions. As we step outside the palapa, we hear the nearby bark of coyotes. Marie convinces Jennifer that the coyotes are small and not at all aggressive. Together they trek to the outhouse and Jen exclaims on their return "I saw their eyes shining in the beam of my flashlight, but as soon as I got near they ran away into the desert".
We reach our tent containing two cots sitting on the sand with a runner of carpet between them. I lay on my cot, cold in my sleeping bag, and listen to the coyotes.
It sounds like another fishing story, but Cummings and Mallan? Mexican handbook recounts how the coyotes in Baja occasionally fish for crabs. "The coyote? furry tail is placed in the water, waiting for a crab to grab on.. Then, with a flick of the tail, the crab is tossed ashore. Before the crab can recover from the shock, the coyotes are busy enjoying a fine crab feast".
When the lagoon is calm, the powerful blows of the whales often interrupt the quiet. Not tonight! The wind soon begins to whip our tent and I stumble out in the night to fasten any loose bits of tent that I can stretch and tie down. I shiver as I crawl back into my down bag, remembering the brochure refers to this as "safari style ambience".
I wake to an orange light bursting through the walls of the canvas. I open the front flap of the tent and watch the sun rise over the lagoon from my cot. A variety of shore birds strut along the beach, feeding on the banquet exposed on the mudflats by the low tide. I recognize Brant geese, a reminder of home. The Brant Geese Festival at Parksville, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, celebrates the annual return of these geese each spring, where they feed along the rich shores.
Immediately after breakfast, Jen, Zack, Marie and I join Maldo, our whale watching guide, and walk out to the small point. This is Zack? first trip also. A kayaker from New England, he jumped at the offer of a job as nature guide and kayak leader at the camp. A small fibreglass boat, or panga, is anchored just off a rocky outcrop and Maldo hauls the rope and brings the panga to shore. We board and set off with great anticipation.
Maldo? face breaks into a grin as we round the point and a Gray whale breaches in the distance. "Watch," he says, "they always breach three times in a row. One time, a whale breached eight times in a row!" Sure enough, twice more the whale rises out of the water, turns and lands with a great splash.
Maldo stands at the stern of the boat and holds the steering arm and controls of the motor. He slows the panga as we approach a large mother, almost 50 feet long, and her calf.
"Splash water at them," Marie cries, "she will bring her baby." Soon the large mother and her calf slowly approach the boat. A gentle lifting of the boat as the whale rubs up and under the boat makes us a little nervous, all except for Maldo.
"I haven't had anyone land in the water yet," he says with a reassuring smile.
The mother raises her large head at the side of the boat and patiently rests as we rub and scratch her back.
Marie cautions "Do not touch the eye, blowhole or fins of the whale.This will disturb them."
The mother constantly swims immediately below her calf, and gently moves the calf towards the boat for a greeting. A burst of bubbles rises to the surface. We are not sure if this behaviour, called bubble blasting, is a greeting or a sign of aggression. The head of the calf rises out of the water to expose a large eye, shutters click and there are cries of excitement. I shoot many frames and capture Jen and Zack? first time rubbing and scratching the back of the calf. I wonder what other wild animal would bring its young to humans for contact?
Jen smiles and says "This is awesome, Dad!"
How different this is to the aggression of the mother whales and the harrowing experiences of whalers in earlier times on these breeding grounds that caused them to call these whales "hard-head" and the "devil-fish". Charles Scammon, the 19th century whaler, explains in his book Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast, that the most dangerous whaling was in the lagoons. The names "arose from the fact of the animals having a great propensity to root the boats when coming in contact with them, in the same manner that hogs upset their empty troughs".
He chronicled the cruel practice of harpooning calves first in order to draw the mothers within "darting distance". The enraged mothers chased the boats and "hardly a day passes but there is an upsetting or staving of boats, the crews receiving bruises, cuts and in many instances, having limbs broken". It is for good reason that the only boats allowed in the lagoon are those guided by the local fishermen.
On this day, we do not feel threatened at all by these giants. We look into the clear water and see that the mother? head and body is decorated with clusters of barnacles, a species that grows exclusively on these whales. What seemed at first to be pink patches are, at closer examination, small crab-like crustaceans known as whale lice. Gray whales are known to be the most encrusted of all the whales. We slowly move off as another panga approaches and it is their turn to interact with the whales.
Maldo tells us as we move away, "We take turns counting the whales each week as they arrive in December. By the end of March there may be as many as 300 whales in the lagoon."
As we race to the outer reaches of the lagoon, suddenly a small group of bottlenose dolphins joins us to play and ride the bow waves of the panga. Then, just as quickly they depart. Brown pelicans bob up and down on the waves. Soon, the tell-tale heart shaped blows of the Gray whales lead us to another group. One "spyhops", gently rising straight out of the water to get a better look at the visitors. We move to investigate a group of whales on the surface creating a great deal of splashing.
"This appears to be mating behaviour," says Maldo. "Mating usually involves several whales, but it is surprising to see a female with a calf engaged in mating." Marie adds "The gestation period is 12 to 13 months and a female will have a calf every other year."
We all groan as Maldo announces it is time to return to the camp for lunch. Our spirits are high as the boat heads towards camp. Jen and I smile at each other and we realize we have had an unforgettable day together with the friendly Gray whales of San Ignacio Lagoon.
Some fast facts about Gray whales
Gray whales have been one of few success stories of recovery after whaling, which was banned in 1947. Their population has grown from a low of 2,000 to their former numbers in excess of 25,000 animals. There are still many threats, however, from pollution, disruption of their migration, oil and gas exploration, and industrialization of the breeding grounds. Dick Russell in his new book, "Eye of the Whale", describes the many pressures currently facing the Gray whale. San Ignacio Lagoon, a wildlife reserve since 1979, was recently threatened by a proposed development of a saltworks by the Mexican government and the Mitsubishi Corporation. International pressure caused the government to withdraw its support and maintain this undisturbed wildlife refuge.
Gray whales, Eschrictius robustus, are also commonly known as desert whales, devilfish for their aggressive behaviour to protect their young, and mussel or mud digger, referring to their feeding behaviour of digging into sandy-mud bottoms.
Gray whales have paired blowholes on their head and plates of baleen hanging from the upper jaw to strain out food from the water. They do not have a dorsal fin, only a low hump and a series of 6 to 12 knobs along their back. Males grow to 14.6 m (48 ft). Females grow to 14.9 m (50 ft.) and 35 tons and their calves when born are 5m (15 ft.) long and weigh 900 kg or more.
Eye of the Whale. Dick Russell. 2001. Simon & Shuster. New York.
The Gray Whale. Eschrictius robustus. 1984. Edited by M.L. Jones, S.L. Swartz and S. Leatherwood. Academic Press. New York.
The Gray Whale. p. 20- 33 In The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, Together with an Account of the American Whale Industry. C.H. Scammon. 1874.
Baja California Plant Field Guide. Norman Roberts. 1989. Natural History Pub. Co.
Copyright Rick Harbo, 5745 Alder Way, Nanaimo, B.C. V9T 544 CANADA
250- 758-9492; E-MAIL firstname.lastname@example.org; fax 250-758-4976
+ Steve Schwartz: from New York to San Ignacio Lagoon
There’s only one place in the entire world where 40-ton gray whale mothers and their two-ton babies come up alongside your small boat: to be petted and that’s the gray whale sanctuary of San Ignacio Lagoon.
By Steve Schwartz
New York, New York
Great is an intriguing word: a great meal... a great movie... a great car. And so is best: the best vacation... the best computer... the best airline. But the word only... now only trumps them both. It's a word to conjure with. As in: “There's only one place in the entire world where 40-ton gray whale mothers and their two-ton babies come up alongside your small boat: to be... petted."
I first heard about the Gray Whales of Baja's San Ignacio Lagoon when Dick Russell told my wife Sarah Jane (his literary agent) that he wanted to write about them. Then, after reading his fascinating "Eye of the Whale" (Simon & Schuster, 2001), we dreamed of seeing them for ourselves. Since Dick was preparing to go again with a few friends, we asked if we could tag along.
Because of what I'd read in Dick's book, plus everything he'd told us about hisfour previous trips, I set my goals (impossibly?) high. It would really be fabulous, I decided, if four things happened: if I could see a whale...see one close enough to look her in the eye...actually pet one on the head...and, holy of holies, maybe even kiss one on the nose.
Although it's possible to fly to the lagoon in a small plane, we decided that driving would add to the adventure, so we rented a car in San Diego and off we went.
“The Baja Peninsula has the Pacific Ocean on one side, the Sea of Cortez on the other, and mountains right down the middle. It's about 80 miles wide and 1,060 miles long -- so long, in fact, that it changes from a Mediterranean climate (in Ensenada near the top) ... to a Tropical one (in La Paz near the bottom)."
Note: It's about a 538-mile run from the border to the lagoon, and there won't be a store in sight for most of it. So before you go, pack the following: a case or two of water...whatever snacks appeal to you...and anti-bacterial hand wipes for on-the-road cleanups. Also, you'll need your passport...a Spanish-English phrase book wouldn't hurt...and be absolutely sure you check your spare tire and jack. Very soon into this trip you're going to find yourself in places where you do not want to be stuck with a flat.
Day 1: San Diego to San Quintin, 204 miles. Sea. Mountains. And one of the best meals you'll ever eat. We left San Diego right after lunch and took Route 5 south, stopping at San Ysidro (the last town in the US) to gas up and change dollars into pesos. Then we drove across the border into Mexico and picked up Route 1 toward Ensenada. This road is lovely because it curves along the Pacific coast and reveals a succession of post card vistas: misty cliffs, with beautiful waves crashing into the shore.
However, this changes once you pass through Ensenada, and you begin to drive through a very different landscape, one that's stark, forbidding, barren, and unforgiving ... or (depending on your sensibilities) ...impressive, dramatic, striking, and imposing. There are long stretches here (and throughout the trip) that you don't want to drive at night, plus, the road drops to two-lanes, and continues this way all the way to San Ignacio.
These two lanes traverse arrow-straight desert road that undulates off into the distance and disappears over the horizon ... and twisty-turny-mountain road where you can find yourself stuck behind a phalanx of gas and cement trucks, 18-wheelers, caravans of senior-driven campers, busses, and ancient pick-ups. And if you think all these vehicles have gathered to keep you from that great meal I mentioned in San Quintin, who am I to argue.
But ...in the early evening, we arrived.
If you've traveled in Mexico, you probably have an image of what a “town" looks like: a pretty central square and church, with shops and houses fanning out from there. Poor perhaps -- but picturesque. The towns along Route 1 to San Ignacio, however, don't look like this at all. They are simply rows of stores and shacks along both sides of the road, looking more like strip malls than anything else. Maybe just as poor -- but certainly not picturesque.
We drove through town to a sign that pointed right, to the La Pinta Hotel. The hotel sits on Santa Maria Bay with rooms that look out onto the water and a rather dramatic beach. And although the hotel design is a bit perplexing (outside cement walkways that go nowhere) and the room decor odd (colored pressed-glass decorations) the hotel is perfectly acceptable: there are two rock-hard double beds, reasonable showers, and a restaurant and bar.
Best of all, though, you're less than a five-minute drive to Cielito Lindo. Although this is also a hotel, you're not here for the rooms -- you're here for the food. Don't even bother looking at a menu. Walk in, sit down, and order a margarita or Negro Modelo beer and the house special: cracked crabs. When you're just about finished with your drink, the waiter will return and place in front of you a large platter piled high with meaty cracked crabs in a delicious, oily, red sauce.
You'll probably work through a dozen or so paper napkins and get sauce all over yourself -- but it's worth it. This feast costs only eleven bucks, and if you don't think it's one of the best meals you've ever eaten, then perhaps you should stick with Chicken McNuggets. (My only complaint is that tortillas do not accomplish the sauce-mopping-up-job that French bread would. So when you're packing your road food, you could maybe throw a loaf or two in the trunk.)
“New born Gray Whales are nearly pink, later turn a dark gray, and can have distinctive white or brown markings. Mature grays are mottled gray, black, and white. They have enormous heads with scattered patches of white barnacles. Their very broad flukes (tails) measure 10-12 feet across and weigh 300-400 pounds, and their tongues weigh an amazing 1.5 tons. They live in small pods, and grunt, click, and whistle to communicate with each other. They reach sexual maturity at about eight years and can live up to seventy-five. Gray whales were called ‘devilfish' by the early whalers because of the fierce battle they put up when hunted. Today, there are probably some 26,600 of them in the Eastern Pacific."
Day Two: Morning. San Quintin to Catavina. 116 miles. Stark. Mountains. Boulder fields. Machaca burritos. From here to Catavina, Dick told us, we would be driving from the beginning of nowhere ... to the middle of nowhere... to the end of nowhere. So after breakfast, we drove back into town to get gas. This part of the trip is mile after mile of mountains, and even though the highway is amazingly well marked (they let you know when a curve is coming ... when a dangerous curve is coming ... and when a really dangerous curve is coming), you never want to let your attention wander. Because of the drop-offs.
There are drop-offs on both sides of the road that vary from a few inches, to a few feet, and more. And by the way, those little roadside crosses and monuments you see aren't only indications of religious faith, they're also memorials to loved ones killed in car crashes on those very spots.
Turns out there are more varieties of cactus in Baja than any other place in the world, and during this stretch of road you will pass hillsides that look like botanical garden displays. Cacti even line the tops of the hills, like soldiers standing guard duty. There are also boojum trees along here, tall thin things with skinny branches and trunks that are wider at the bottom than at the top. Boojums can grow as tall as telephone poles, and the early Spanish called them cirio (candle) after the handmade tapers on the alters of mission churches. The Anglo name, however, came from an Arizona botanist who first saw one in 1922 and immediately named it after the strange and mythical creature -- the “boojum" -- in Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark.
This is also fertile ground for the cardon cactus, the world's tallest. Cardons can reach nearly 70 feet and weigh as much as ten tons. Some are believed to be more than 200 years old and, in Indian lore, they take on human characteristics and move around at night when people are sleeping. You know you're nearing Catavina when you come upon a remarkable sight: granite boulders as far as the eye can see, looking as if enormous giants scattered them all over the ground, and piled them up into small mountains. There are small ones the size of grapefruits, and enormous ones that would take two construction cranes to budge. Scientists say the boulders were formed by the wind, blowing over the granite -- like sandpaper -- for millions of years. These fields go on for miles and I've never seen anything even remotely like them.
Then you arrive in Catavina and although it's nothing more than a small widening of the road, there are three very important things here: the only gas for about a hundred miles either way ...a La Pinta hotel with restaurant and restrooms ... and the Cafe La Enramada.
Even though there's no actual gas station, what's here is memorable. There's an old man with gas cans (leaded and unleaded). You tell him (or point) to what you want and he grabs a barrel, a gas can, and a length of black hose. He drags the barrel over and plunks the can on top so it's higher than your car. Then he sticks one end of the hose into the can, sucks on the other until the gas starts flowing, and jams the hose into your tank.
After gassing up, we had every intention of eating at the hotel, but Sarah Jane announced a change of plans. Apparently, she'd wandered over to the cafe and met some interesting people. And what followed was something that seems only to happen when you're on the road (or maybe only when you're in Baja). The cafe, though modest, has an inside dining room and a pleasant, covered outdoor eating area. The exterior walls are boojum wood (which has an interesting vertical grain and is as “holey" as Swiss cheese).
We sat down and Sarah Jane introduced us to Tom VanDevender, Mark Dimmitt, and three of their colleagues from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. They were in Baja doing a plant-life study, and during our conversation, they offered three additional only's: The boulder fields we drove through? Only found in Baja. The tall, skinny boojum trees? Only found in Baja (with a small population in Sonora, on the mainland.) The cacti and plant life? One hundred species only found in Baja. And incredibly, as the conversation progressed, it turned out that both Tom and Mark had worked with a scientist who is a client of Sarah Jane's (!) And that took a moment to sink in: guys from Arizona...us from New York...connected by this one man...in a small cafe...in the middle of Baja...at the same time. And just as I was speculating about degrees of separation, Eve Ewing walked over to say hello.
Eve turned out to be from the San Diego Natural History Museum and her connection to our adventure was equally improbable. Eve Ewing's father was the first man to fly scientists to the San Ignacio lagoon to see the whales (!) And by the way, there's again no need to look at a menu: order the machaca burritos (shredded, spiced beef) and some cheese quesadillas for the table. Terrific.
"Each year, Gray Whales undertake the longest migration of any mammal. They journey from their summer feeding grounds in the arctic to their winter breeding grounds in Baja. This is a 12,000-mile round-trip that goes from the Bering Strait, through the Aleutian Islands, past British Columbia, and along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California to three shallow lagoons in Baja. The whales stay in the arctic for 2-3 months then leave in October, and take 2-3 months to get to the lagoons. They remain in Baja for
2-3 months, and then take the same 2-3 months to return north. The whales travel close to shore most of the time, swimming at about 5-miles an hour and, typically, mature whales won't eat (or sleep) during the entire trip."
Day Two: Afternoon. Catavina to Guerrero Negro. 145 miles. Long. Boring. A border.
This drive is tedious because it's a very long stretch, and also because the landscape (until San Ignacio) is just a variation on themes you've already seen. But we finally arrived, and gassed up at the Pemex station before the border. Guerrero Negro is the crossing from the State of Baja California into the State of Baja California Sur, and Dick told us to put our watches ahead an hour. It seems that although we'd been traveling south, we'd also been traveling far enough east to be on Mountain Time."
We drove on, and a few interesting things happened at the border itself:
A man in a uniform walked over to Dick's car, confiscated the apples he and his friends had been munching on, and fined him ten pesos. (The same man didn't seem at all interested in the pretzels and chocolate Oreos on the back seat of our car).
Then someone else came over and requested another ten Pesos so a man in a mask and protective suit could spray each of our car's four wheels with (Insecticide? Water? Beats me). Then a third man asked if we had Mexican Visas. Since we didn't,
we were ushered into a small building, asked to fill out some forms, and told we had to find a bank and pay $22.00 to get them stamped. It just didn't seem worthwhile to ask why we couldn't pay right there.
(So now you know to get a visa or tourist card before you set out. But if you don't, you can go into town now and get it over with: drive down the main street a few kilometers to the bank on the right, just past the canal.)
"In order to eat, Gray Whales can dive down some 100 feet to the ocean floor, and stay for 30 minutes. Then they turn on their right side and suck up great quantities of mud and water, which they filter through 160 pair of short, smooth comb-like baleen in their mouths. The baleen trap the small bottom-dwelling creatures they feed on: small fish, crustaceans, squid, plankton, and other tiny organisms. At the end of their stay in the arctic, they will have built up a 10" layer of blubber, which they will live on for the duration of their round-trip journey."
Day Two, Late Afternoon: Guerrero Negro to San Ignacio. 89 miles. Scruffy. Dusty. A surprise. Great breaded clams. These 89 miles are scruffy, dirty, and dusty but then, without warning, you turn a curve and see an enormous grove of palm trees. San Ignacio is an oasis town, but there's no hint of it. The landscape doesn't get a bit greener ...then a bit more ...then a bit more -- it's nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...BOOM -- palm trees everywhere (planted by Jesuit missionaries over 300 years ago, and fed by an underground river).
The town itself is about 2 or 3 kilometers off the main road and you drive through this amazing palm grove until you get to the La Pinta; with decor as odd as its San Quintin sister, but again with large comfortable rooms and ...only a three-minute drive to Rene's for dinner.
Rene's serves fresh-caught fish and local lobster, but (I know I'm getting doctrinaire) you should order breaded Pismo clams all around, plus an order or two of scallops in garlic for the table. And say hello to Victor, the elegant and personable owner.
Note: there is an interesting lodging alternative to the hotel, and that's the San Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast, run by Gary and Terry Marcer, a Canadian couple who fell in love with the area. You stay here in Yurts (circular, domed, portable tents used by the nomadic Mongols of central Asia). But before you wrinkle up your nose, these Yurts couldn't be more modern or comfortable. Each has a large bed, hand-carved furniture from Mexico City, plus a night table with touch lamps. There are windows and screen doors, and there is even a Yurt large enough to accommodate a bed, dining table, couch, standing floor mirror, bookshelves, and a microwave. The B&B is right on the San Ignacio River, and has outdoor patios, kayaks, fishing, and lovely shower and restroom facilities.
"There are typically 150-200 whales in the 60-square mile lagoon at any one time. The first to arrive in late December/early January are the pregnant females, then the mature breeding adults, and finally, the year-olds. Mature females can give birth once every two years, and single calves are born after a 12-13 month gestation period. Another gray, called an “auntie," sometimes helps the mother when a calf is born. Newborns are 15 feet long, weigh 1500-2000 pounds, and are nursed for 7-8 months on milk that is 53% fat (ten times richer than cow's milk). Calves need this fat to build up their own layer of blubber for the long trip north, and by the time they leave Baja, they will have gained about 1,000 pounds."
Day Three, Morning: Town to the Lagoon. 37 (on a road you won't believe) miles.
After breakfast you might want to spend a little time exploring San Ignacio. Father Francisco Maria Piccolo founded the town in 1716, and the lovely old mission church on the square was completed in 1786. Its walls are made from volcanic rock that's four-foot thick, and this is one of the reasons the church had remained standing and virtually unaltered, throughout the years. San Ignacio is also the starting place for trips to the cave paintings of the Sierra of San Francisco, paintings some 800 - 1,000 years old, done by a people whose name is lost to history. You'll find stores on the square that arrange excursions.
After sightseeing, check your spare and jack again, then steel yourself for what's coming: 37 miles of washboard road that go from dreadfully awful to extremely awful to indescribably awful. In addition, you have two options: go slow, take 3 hours, and have your insides shaken out ??or go fast, take 1-1/2 hours, and have your insides shaken out. (Are you getting it that the only constant is having your insides shaken out?)
I started out at a cautious 5-10 miles an hour but Sarah Jane suggested we try going faster. I soon discovered that at 35-40 we were able skim over the top of some of the bumps. (Dick, bless him, already knew this and had disappeared in a dust cloud less than 5 seconds into the trip.) You will have to discover for yourself how fast you're comfortable driving, and much rattling around you think your car can take. Finally, water blessedly appeared off in the distance and, feeling shaken and stirred, we reached the lagoon and turned left.
“In February of 1972, Pachico Mayoral, a fisherman, had the first encounter with a friendly gray whale. A gray approached while he was out in his boat. He was frightened, but the whale stayed alongside. Then ...Pachico petted its head. I don't know what finally compelled me to reach out my hand. The moment I touched the whale for the first time, I felt something incredible. I lost my fear. I was amazed. It was like breaking through some kind of invisible wall. And I kept touching. That moment I compare with when my first child was born. It leaves a deep impression in my heart. Local legend holds that Pachico taught the whales to interact with people. And until science can explain their behavior, this will just have to do."
Pachico lives in the second house just after you turn left. He figures prominently in Dick's book so we stopped to say hello. Pachico came out of his house, embraced Dick warmly, and greeted the rest of us. He has a heavily-lined, ageless face (60? 70? 80?) and would have been Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea had the writer met him. Looking at Pachico, I absolutely believed he taught the whales to interact with humans (and, in fact, would have believed anything mystical or spiritual anyone said about him).
If you've just gone to the lagoon for a day trip, you can go out with Pachico and see about his special relationship with the whales for yourself. But since we were staying overnight, we reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed for Maldo Fisher's Campo Cortez, another thirty minutes or so down the road.
Day Three, Afternoon: Campo Cortez. Howling wind. First whales. Campo Cortez is comprised of eight or nine sparking white tents (each with two cots, sleeping bags, and rugs covering the sandy floor), an outhouse and shower, and two palapas (thatched buildings with roofs of woven palm leaves encased in wooden frames). The smaller palapa is the kitchen, and the larger the dining hall. As we ate lunch, we could hear the wind picking up. Although it's always a bit windy at the lagoon, this was beginning to sound like more than a “bit."
When you think of Baja, you probably think of heat and sun, but during the months the whales are there (January - February - March) the weather at the lagoon can vary from sandals, shorts, and t-shirts -- to heavy socks, woolen sweaters, and rainproof windbreakers. Pack with these variables in mind or you could be very uncomfortable. Also, pack layers so you can put some on or take some off, and be sure to bring a flashlight or two (with new batteries). Campo Cortez will send you a checklist. Pay attention to it.
We set out with Maldo in one of his pangas (open, 7-9 passenger boats traditionally used by lagoon fisherman). It was cold and wet -- and the wind was causing pretty heavy chop. Now I'm a city kid, but it was soon apparent even to me how masterful Maldo was in handling the boat. He was minimizing the waves as much as possible but, despite his skill, this was getting to be cold-water-in-the-face-unpleasant. Just as I was really beginning to question what the hell I was doing out there, we saw our first whale. She did a spy hop; she raised her head out of the water -- like she was standing on her tail -- and checked us out. I even got a fleeting glimpse of her eye.
"The eye is so big, and you sense an intelligence in it, that these are creatures who have knowledge and understanding that we're only beginning to appreciate."
-Christopher Reeve, as quoted in
Dick Russell, Eye of the Whale
Then another whale cruised by in the near distance. And one did the insurance-company-TV-commercial shot; slipping into the water and showing us the full breadth of his tail. Then a baby came near the boat, and a mother and another baby swam close by. This pair looked like they wanted to approach us, but hesitated because the waves were just too rough. If anything, the wind picked up even more, so Maldo took us in.
Day Three, Night:. Campo Cortez. Dinner. Sky. Tent. We were all cold and disappointed when we got to shore. And although the wind continued to howl, the staff built a warm fire in the middle of the palapa, we had margaritas, and ate a wonderful dinner prepared by Maldo's wife of chicken mole, tortillas, guacamole, beans, and salad. Then Maldo showed a video he'd made on the boat a few days before. Every gray whale in the western hemisphere seemed to have gathered for the delight of this lucky group of passengers.
Cynical New York me secretly believed this was an edited highlights reel, but even so, given our frustrating afternoon, I wasn't sure watching this tape was such a good idea. Had all the friendly whales grown tired of humans? Would the wind howl again tomorrow? Would we see anything closer than we did today? Would we get to pet anything?
Finally, it was bedtime and, flashlights in hand, Sarah Jane and I headed toward our tent. Then I saw the sky. It stopped me right where I stood. I'd never seen a sky like this. If you live in a city or anywhere near one, you just don't.
We were miles and hours from any kind of electric light, and the heavens were astonishing. Countless, unimaginably bright stars. This sky was a participant in my life. Right in my face. It was a presence I couldn't ignore and it was everywhere I looked -- from horizon to horizon. I had a sense of how ancient peoples must have felt when they looked up, and it made me feel all the cliches I would ordinarily snicker at: astounded, awed, astonished, inconsequential, irrelevant, insignificant. This sky wasn't a planetarium show, it was the real deal. Amazing.
I wanted to keep standing there, but it was too cold and the wind was just too strong. So I went into the tent. Sarah Jane was already bundled up in her sleeping bag. I'd never even set foot inside a tent before ...never been in a sleeping bag ... and certainly never contemplated sleeping under the roof of one while encased in the other. But I did have some idea of what to expect, sleep-wise. And I was right. I don't think I slept at all because I remember the exact moment the sides of the tent stopped flapping. The wind had died down. I smiled.
Day Four, Morning: Campo Cortez. The whales (oh my) the whales. Having slept (Badly? Sporadically? At all?) had its compensations. As I saw the world brighten through the canvas walls, I staggered out in time to see sunrise on the lagoon. This sight didn't match last night's sky, but since my terrific-outdoor-experiences list was extremely shot, it made it, no sweat. Plus, I was delighted to see I hadn't hallucinated the wind abating. It was relatively calm. So we had breakfast and were in the boat by 9:30.
It takes about 20 minutes to get from camp to the whale-watching area of the bay and when we arrived, Maldo stopped the boat and, with the motor idling, looked around. Dick told us that the whales are drawn by the sound of the motor, but there was nothing. A few minutes passed. Still nothing. Then Maldo moved to another location, relatively near by. Nothing (and I really began to regret watching that video). Nothing. Nothing. Then ...everything.
You hear that a mother gray whale can be forty-feet long and weigh forty tons, and you smile and nod. But you have absolutely no idea what this means until mama and a baby swim toward you and mama's back breaks the surface of the water. It's huge. And it takes your breath away. And you hear about how the whales of San Ignacio come over to your boat, and you smile and nod. But you have no idea what this means until mama and baby continue to swim toward you, then turn aside or swim under the boat. (Sometimes mama gives it the gentlest nudge to let you know she's there.)
These animals could crush the boat like a toothpick -- but they don't. They could overturn it in an eye blink -- but they don't. They could ram you and not even feel it -- but they don't. Or they could just avoid you like every other species in the wild -- but they don't. And when you begin to realize this, and also begin to realize you don't have the slightest feeling of threat, you begin to sense the mystery and miracle of this experience.
Mama resurfaced very close to us and spouted. Grays spout often (making a noise that sounds something like chufff) and when they do, you can see a rainbow through the fine mist. As the mist covered us, Sarah Jane said: “This is like being blessed by holy water."
We began to see whales all around us ... and it soon it resembled a kiddy beauty pageant: proud mothers eagerly showing off their beautiful children.
Whale mothers introduced us to their babies (and there simply isn't another word for it). The babies come alongside to be petted (there isn't another word). Some mothers taught their babies this behavior (no other word) by nudging them toward us, or swimming under and floating them up. And the babies played and showed off (no other words): they swam upside down, rolled over and over, swam on their sides -- shoving, splashing, bumping, and raising up their heads to get a good look at us.
The babies' skin is soft and rubbery and one even opened his mouth so someone could stroke his gums. There was a magical 15-minute period when six whales surrounded our boat, with the babies swimming over each other vying for our attention (OK, so you come up with a better word). The whales enjoy being petted, they enjoy interacting with us. If they didn't -- they just wouldn't do it.
One baby in particular, with a distinctive brown patch on its side, seemed to like us very much. A few other boats were in the area so he would go over for a moment to investigate, but then come back to us time and again.
I kept petting this baby and couldn't help wondering about his journey north. I very badly wanted this baby to travel safely, to live a long life, to mate, and to return to San Ignacio again and again. But Killer whales lay in his path, as do Makah tribesmen in Washington State, allowed once again to hunt grays.
I became attached to this whale and this isn't the kind of thing that happens to me: to new age people, yes. To earthy-crunchies, yes. To tree-huggers, yes. To me, no. Until now. This 2,000-pound creature made a profound impact on me. One I won't soon forget.
Just as it was time to go back in, one of the babies swam away from us on his side, with a flipper sticking up in the air. As he swam, the flipper swayed back and forth, looking nothing less than a wave goodbye.
At some point in your life you probably said: “This was the most amazing experience I've ever had." But you know...you can't ever say this sentence again until you experience the Gray Whales of San Ignacio. No other experience is the “most amazing." This one is. And although we use words to communicate, words pretty much fail here. This encounter is beyond their power. However, when you and people close to you experience the whales for yourselves -- you won't need words. All you'll have to do is look at each other ... and smile.
So I got to see whales (well over a dozen). I got to look whales in the eye (at least five times). I got to pet whales (many, many). But I didn't get my kiss.
“The Mexicans say the Gray Whales are ‘tame.' Yet they are not domesticated. We did not break them as we might a horse. They tamed themselves -- to come to us, their time-honored enemy, in the place where they give birth. And, mysteriously, it feels as if this is how it should be, how it used to be. The commonality is primordial. We are molded of the same clay."
Eye of the Whale, Dick Russell. Simon Schuster, 2001.
Toll-Free Telephone: 877-560-BAJA (2252)
La Pinta Hotels:
Hotels in Ensenada, San Quintin, Catavina, Guerrero Negro, San Ignacio, and Loreto
Toll-Free Telephone: 800-800-9632.
San Ignacio Springs Bed & Breakfast:
Gary and Terry Marcer
Phone messages: 011-52-615-154-0333
+ Heather Somers: “We are humbled witnesses ...”
A page from Heather’s Baja journal as she and her friends travel from San Ignacio to the lagoon and find their way in the dark to Campo Cortez. “Divine intervention led us in the dark to Campo Cortez.”
A Page From Heather's Baja Journal
By Heather Somers
Kim Creek from Georgia, via Berkeley CA
Jill Denyes from Maui Hawaii via Oakland, CA
Heather Somers (yo) from Oregon, via Berkeley
Jan 9, 2003 Campo Cortez Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Day 7
Here we are, finally in repose. After 1500 miles of dusty, bumpy roads, hypothetical situation stories, word association games, intimate recounts of intimate encounters, and the broken silences while the CD player offers a five second delay over every single pothole on the trans-peninsular highway and the mudflat trail out here, the cowgirls are finally chilling. We have met Santo Maldo and our voyage has been elevated. Divine intervention led us in the dark to Campo Cortez, and we are full bellied at last with fresh fish tacos and outstanding quality coffee and our minds float easily like the egrets in the estuary beside us.
The whales put us in quite a place yesterday. Like some deeply strange movie, we were in the sci-fi life of another planet. The magnificent silver, white, black, blue arching spines of their perfectly prehistoric backs dancing around us in the water. We were all sensing the courtship dance~that perhaps these were not yet mothers and children, but parents-to-be, choosing each other, mating and winding around one another in a most blessed ceremony. Dolphins emerged in every direction on the horizon, silver-black in the shining waters of this Pacific Lagoon. We would simply go, stop, wait, and this swirl of dreamlike beauty would arise.
Moments waiting were not anxious, but still and soft and sun-kissed as we stared at the craggy inland mountains of Baja's volcanic spine, or the metallic surface of the salt wonderland broken by tiny silver fish, long squiggly fish, diving terns. Then they came.
Idling in the middle of the mouth of the Laguna, a string of black dots appeared on the eastern shoreline. First dozens. Then hundreds. And then within the course of minutes, a brigade, a battalion, a legion of thousands and thousands of cormorants were moving in infinite droves over the water. Like ribbons in the breeze, the line would pick up in a seemingly random procession, fly higher, guiding those next in line up in perfect alternation, then at some other incalculable point, drop back down to the water level, creating an undulating string of life winding and waving like celebratory streamers over this unparalleled performance below; the dance of love performed by some of earth's largest mammals. We are humbled witnesses.
+ Emily Celino writes a poem entitled: “Ballena Gris”
Emily was so moved by how the Gray Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon placed such trust in her and the other members in her boat. “Frolicking beneath the boat and honoring us with their presence.”
By Emily Celino
Ballena Gris (gray whale)
Mysterious, marvelous ballena,
Why do you seek us?
Wonderful, wandering ballena,
Why do you seek us?
Gentle, giant ballena,
Why do you seek us?
Graceful, gregarious ballena,
Why do you seek us?
Formidable but forgiving, you frolic beneath our touch.
We, who dishonored, abused, hunted you ...
We are exhilarated by your joy and humbled by your trust.
We meet you with respect
and with love as boundless as the oceans you swim in.
+ Paula Walker: From the Journal of Paula Walker
Paula writes of her and husband Rob's encounters with a mother and gray whale calf and the stark beauty of the place she has traveled so far to visit. "San Ignacio Lagoon is on the edge of Forever."
By Paula Walker
From the journal of Paula Walker
Well then, there was this baby ... well actually this baby and mom. And we were scootching back to the camp (Campo Cortez) for lunch. We’d already been out over two hours and it had been a sweet, truly, magical morning. We’d had a couple of encounters, I mean those close up kind where you actually get to, I mean to say the whale allows you to, touch it. Such a thrill. And who could complain. These encounters had been as enduring as any had been so far. Enduring in the length of time as well as enduring in the impression on mind and soul. I mean, how many people do you know, how often have you, gotten to make finger-contact with a whale at it’s own request - Blue, Grey, Humpback or otherwise? So really, one can’t complain when the morning is filled with spy-hops 10-feet from your itty-bitty panga (appx. 20 ft. skiff with outboard motor) and even some moments of touch, those super-earthly events when a baby Grey would come close enough and remain long enough for you to touch it; to feel it's silky surface just below and enhanced by the texture of the green sea you're floating on.
Then to add to that there were these dolphin and turtle encounters.When we first spotted the whales it had been preceded by two dolphins’ curving scimitar shapes, brown and belonging, before the bow, and to the right a very large sea turtle.This was the first one I’d seen there. Rob and Maldo often called out “Turtle” but they would be gone before I caught sight of them. But not today. There was no missing this one. It was as though a gathering had been called for the resident artist to make an eco-poster - you know, one of those Wyland-esque sorts. And then, as we left the whales, suddenly the ‘cousins’ and ‘relations’ appeared again. Sanctioning the time we’d spent. Giving their blessings of form and motion to the morning’s time with the whales. Most magical. I felt quite satisfied.The time with the whales had been as delicious as each and every other outing had been, with the bonus of some sweet contact skin-to-skin -- and the ‘punctuation points’-- visits by dolphins and turtles, were added glimmers on a sparkly day.
Most of the morning had been filled with Maria, the pinto Grey whale (she hada very distinctive patch of white, a tiny saddle blanket patch afore her dorsal fin), and her baby. Maldo, our guide, recognized her. Said she’s been sighted in the Guerro Negro lagoon in other years as well (another birthing lagoon north of San Ignacio).He knows her ‘personally’ and knows her to be a definite “friendly”, i.e. she’ll sometimes come up to the boat with her baby and ambassador for the species.So we spent time following Maria and her calf this morning hoping that today she was in an inter-species frame of mind. And certainly she was as we had a number of opportunities to see her and her bambino up close and even were granted some contact. But then another panga came along with a family and children in it and the baby seemed more interested in them. Which has been my experience that babies are attracted to babies and baby whales are no different. Watching them (the family in the other panga), their delight and eagerness at the approaching baby and at the contact invited was fun-making for me. I just thrill to watch the unbelievable spectacle of 90 - 200 lbs leaning overboard to greet 2 tons of creature accompanied by its 35 ton mom (the mom being bigger than the entire boat the human creatures are bobbing trustingly around in). Each reaching out from a world only partially visible to the other. But I know that in the moment of contact the leviathan knows more of the human than vice versa.
But then, as I say - there was this mother and baby.
Maldo is more than just a partner in a camp for whale tourists. More than just a panga driver for these same. He is one respected in his community (“un hombre respecto” is how he’s known, Johnny told us one afternoon), called upon for his insights and wisdoms. Yes you perceive, that amidst the ready sense of humor always there to laugh with you, that he moves through life with a sensitivity to the subtle things around him, maybe born of the subtle things that have surrounded him through his life in this remote desert lagoon wilderness.
So I say this because as we approached I am certain now that Maldo had that ‘extra sense’ about this mother and baby.
It was after all after noon time and there was no reason, if the only thing to do was satisfy the tourists, to stop yet again. As I say, it had already been quite a morning - we’d been out more than the allotted time, and had the total of close-up and personal contact that constitutes an entire stay’s opportunity for many. But then I think too that Maldo ‘invites’ the whales. I think it’s no coincidence that our times out with him were filled-experiences.
As he started to slow the panga I became filled with that heightened sense ofpossibility and barely containable excitement at the prospect of the morning-not-quite-yet-done. And it most certainly wasn’t. As we stopped near this mother and baby I leaned over and splashing water in their direction (a technique coached by Maldo to get their attention and let them know you ‘want to talk fingers’), invited them to come be as curious about me as I was about them, when suddenly I heard Maldo’s voice urging my attention saying “ "there, there” and sure enough looking where he pointed there was the water-shadow of the baby coming to the surface by the boat. Oh glorious!! Maybe, just maybe, it would want fingers and mine were ready.
Fingers indeed !!! Rob and I spent the next hour massaging this little, not-so-little, “crea” (Spanish - and I’m not sure the spelling - for baby grey whale). Yes, we massaged its body and it massaged our souls. This side of the boat, that side of the boat, on the bow, at the stern. I would get soaked from this little one expelling it’s breath so near me that it was like a sudden, brief rainstorm. Sometimes it would make shudder-breaths like it was really enjoying the touch - hope so. Funny, intimately close sounds. Such a privilege. Emblazoned on my mind, in my cells, forever, hopefully ... forever.
Rob likes to recount as an apex that in parting, I kissed this little baby on the snout. He says I could have hugged it if I chose. While this carries the element of the sensational, the moment was full with the genuine, it was not a made-for-movie action. I had been so careful to be respectful to this delightful spirit. When I realized that it genuinely enjoyed my contact and that I wasn’t invading its space, I was elated.It was a very freeing understanding. I had filled my intention with doing what was satisfying to this creature to experience and hoped not to be just self-fulfilling. What a pleasure to realize that it was mutual. At any rate, there was this moment when the little creature spy-hopped right beside me and I realized I could kiss this snout, why not, when would there ever be such a time, so I did.
I mentioned getting wet. I was in bliss getting doused, there were baby ‘shnorfulls’ and momma ‘SHNORFULLS’ causing sea-smelling rainstorms upon us, and times when rubbing the baby’s body as it sank deeper and deeper and I reached further and further that I’d be up to my shoulders before I realized it - and then there was the belly rubbing moment where it’s a wonder I didn’t end up down 20-30 feet with the baby as I continued to reach mesmerized by the moment until my face hit the water and I got a wet-cold reminder that my reality was the boat and best keep my body in it.
Well we both (Rob and I) were scratching, rubbing fools-for-baby-whale and it seemed to know it. Who else knew it was mom. This baby and our actions, each and every one, were accounted for by her attention. She was there every moment. Sometimes she’d come up right beside the panga with the baby - but just out of reach. Sometimes she’d be just below the baby looking up at us ... that eye ... Sometimes she’d be under the boat apprising us of her immensity - intentionally or not - this was a message both sobering and giving in it’s display. Sometimes she’d be resting a ways from the boat, waiting, attending, and the baby would go over to her and lounge across her nose, rolling this way and that pec fins flapping, playful in the wonderful way loved-babies everywhere have with their mom, knowing that they can go explore and then return for assurance and security and then sojourn again.
Yes, Rob and I were besotted. And we were smilin’ !!
San Ignacio Lagoon is on the edge of Forever.
It is a land of wind and sun and things that grow sensitively, tenaciously in the stark conditions and in so doing lend some color, some grace to the sand-scape. It is filled with a silence broken only by things belonging there -- terns, water lapping the shore, seagulls, geese, sometimes coyote and always, almost always, wind. When the wind is not wind-ing the stillness holds you like an external meditation. You move within the stillness. You listen more acutely, for the stillness invites you to take your chance while the wind is taking a nap. At night, midnight, when the wind has “packed its bags for a bit”, you wake to the sound of Brandts geese assuring each other of each’s presence. Subtle night sounds that assure you too. Inside you sigh, relieved, that there are still places on the earth this remote, this untouched and you get to witness. Sometimes in the night if you peak outside your tent you see the moon has risen and grown orange in the night - blue sky and the stars compete for your attention. I’m told that in the height of the season-of-the-whale these quiet nights bring you the sounds of whales breathing as well. We were there at the tail-end of the season which had its own rewards. I could imagine it.
Sunrises invite you to be still and watch - for great length. Sunsets defy description, burden your mind to the extent and intensity of their display such that you surrender attempts to quantify or qualify in your inner voice and simply just witness -- in awe.
One evening against just such a backdrop I walked up to Cesse (spelling again - Maldo’s brother’s wife) who pointed my attention to a coyote amid the brush and color. She then, in hushed tones, seeming like myself not to want to disturb the moment, started to count them. I don’t speak Spanish. She doesn’t speak English. But our shared wonder as she counted once and once again confirming that there were five of them looking at the two of us, was barrier-free.
The wonders of this biosphere, this World Heritage site seem as infinite as the view in any direction of the landscape itself. The passage to the whales and the return are as filled with remarkables as the whales themselves. Speeding out in the panga from the camp to a hoped for time with whales - pelicans move your attention, not because they demand it, not because they need it, but because they have a timelessness that calls to something deep inside you. They swoop down low to the water and skim along the surface, effortlessly pacing your panga with no motion in their wings. They look sideways at you and you are reminded of something mythical and wise ... flying Gandalfs (for those who've been initiated by the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.) You look beyond the bow and suddenly realize there are not one, but three or four dolphins heading to ‘seize the moment’ as your panga’s bow wave gives them a joy ride - actually they give the joy, you give the ride ... Particular to this lagoon I am emblazoned with the sight of a sable-brown shape of scimitar and fin that is dolphin. Such pleasure just in that shape, that color as it curves perfectly for a flash-bulb’s-moment along your vision captivating you with it’s delight. Tortugas (if you’re Spanish), Honu (if you’re Hawaiian), Sea Turtle by any other name pop up here and there, but you have to be lucky, very lucky to see them. They break the surface for the briefest of breaths and only if you’ve been graced to be looking at that exact spot of a very large expanse of sea and sky will you see them this time of year. I understand they hibernate primarily during the winter months but are abundant and in the summer they are many to see.
The terns seem to have a different call in the afternoon than in the morning. And they and the pelicans give the fish no rest. Diving down with such velocity that sometimes in your eagerness you mistake the geyser they create on impact for the blow of the mother and calf you are straining to see. The cormorants are many as well, and they always must be at a point that crosses your bow when you are rushing upon them and their creature mind says it is not safe, even though there may be a 20 yard clearance. Still they are propelled to move and with miles on either side of them, they must choose to beat the boat across its bow. But for whatever it is that makes cormorants do cormorant things, they wait till the last minute, eyeing your oncoming boat, neck back, head up in a posture that suggests “You wouldn’t. You won’t. Don’t dare.” And then, almost too late it seems, decide “You will and I must be out of here”, they flap furiously, lifting their body but not their webbed feet from the water they proceed for some suspended-minutes-of-time in which you are sure they cannot possibly make their trajectory without colliding with you, they proceed to fly / walk-on-water making it to the new ‘safe place’ as you pass and they settle down giving you that ‘cocked back’ look just in case you do ‘anything funny’ at the last moment.
I haven’t mentioned the sea lions yet have I ... well yes there are sea lions, and Maldo had the ones we saw our last whale-outing nearly alcoholic with his expert sea lion imitations. Maldo spotted them first, no surprise, and called them to our attention, and just as they were preparing to dive back under their cover of sea, Maldo called out - something - in ‘sea-lionese’ that caught them up short and around they looked and around they looked. Then with an ‘Oh well’ started to descended again, when again Maldo said “Psst, Psst, Hey there” or something like that. And again, confusion growing on their faces, and yes you can discern confusion on a sea lion’s face (or maybe we’d just been at camp too long !), they searched the area around them for the sea lion companion trying to get their attention.
For those of you who have ever seen a reddish egret in action I need say no more. For those of you who haven’t, this is a show not to miss. When the tide is low the mudflats of the lagoon are a banquet hall for the many birds, the few I’ve mentioned and the many I haven’t. Well our first sighting was a late afternoon. Someone spotted this very large bird at the edge of the lagoon and called my attention to it. What a show. The epitomy of the absent minded, uncoordinated, nerd-of-a-nerd cartoon in action. It would dash this way and that way, seeming always to be in some manner at-odds with itself being that it’s head would move and its large ponderous body at the bottom of its loosey-goosey neck would stay where it was until at last pulled along, in reluctance by the shear momentum set up by the head in motion.
Then when the feet finally joined the rest of the act, it would jump up as though stung by something in the sand, or by the startling realization that it missed an important appointment it had better hurry off to. And so it went, for bugs-bunny-moments-on-end, settling down one minute, dazed ruffled and prodded by some invisible goad the next. You swore you could hear it saying, “Where did I put my ...????”, “Oh, I’m late for ...!!!” Then it would suddenly spot a delectable and nab it with precision while looking like it would certainly fall on its head, a spectacle of mud and feathers in the attempt. Well as you can see, this creature gave us no end of entertainment and amusement. It was good stuff for the many Rob-isms it evoked which of course added to and amplified the superb silliness that had your sides aching. The first afternoon we spotted this it might have been misconstrued that the camp Margaritas were embellishing the situation, but not. Many a morning we’d watch the antics of this egret morning-dining with his curlew buddy, or ‘torpedoe duck’ -- some variety of little duck that was on a frenzy of stealth fish feeding, bow-waving just under the water, while egret looked on from his dazed height between fits of impelled movement.
Contrasted with the marvelous foolishness is Osprey. There were two of them, to be seen early mornings and late afternoon, on the wing, on the hunt, or sitting large on a greened sand dune.
A feast for the eyes as you swept the landscape close and far taking in the contrasts, the starkness. The verdant variance of the estuary marshland, spilled out across the dryness. Golds and roses so elusively mixed in that you’re certain there is a trick of the eye desiring to add something that isn’t really there; white, White sand dunes; the Sierra Santa Clara jagged and monumental ... the kind of skyline that inspires one to paint or write - or be quiet; the white caps unbroken that point to where the Pacific waits ready for the long journey and reminds constantly of the safety that stops at the lagoon.
I pray for the safety of those serene and trusting creatures who opened the fabric of time itself for me to know them in this intimate way. I pray that my pleasure brings them no harm. I pray that my touch does not make them more vulnerable to those who would hurt. I pray for a world that can know these creatures in their magnificence and understand the responsibility for this. I pray ...
"con Dios Ballenas ... "
+ Rick Armon: "We were changed for the rest of our lives"
High school student Rick Armon writes of his whale watching trip to San Ignacio Lagoon: “This was an incredible experience watching all these animals interact and play like they were humans. What more can you say?"
By RICK ARMON
San Diego, California
I feared the fourteen hour bus trip from Tijuana to San Ignacio, Mexico, to see the Gray Whales, was going to be terrible, but I slept more than I thought! Even though it was a luxury bus, with TV and reclining seats, my feet where still in the aisle and my back was sore.
We met a woman on the bus that I had met last year; at a boaters party in La Paz, which was ironic, considering our group were the only other foreigners on the bus. I was familiar with the towns that we stopped at, having spent time in Mexico before.
We arrived in the town of San Ignacio, 500 miles down the Baja peninsula, in early morning. We all seemed tired from the long bus trip, so we went to a restaurant for some coffee and breakfast. My Mom, the tour guide and naturalist, showed us the best things to get for breakfast and once we finished up, the guests wanted to see the town.
The mission, started by the Jesuits in the late 1600’s, finished by the Dominicans, is quite beautiful with frescoes and sculptures on the inside, but on the outside it looks like one of the most run down churches ever! We also saw the museum of San Ignacio; preserving the history and replicas of 10,000 year old cave paintings, and arrowheads. Then we went for a gorgeous walk through the neighborhood, by which time Johnny, part owner of Baja Adventure Company, and Marie, arrived in town to drive us to Campo Cortez, where we would be staying out at the Lagoon.
I was waiting around and I saw some guys skateboarding in the central plaza. Most Mexican towns, no matter how small, have a central plaza by the church. Man was I happy, so I went over and I swear I wasn’t there a minute before they offered me a ride. I got to show those guys a few moves!
By that time I had to jump into a van full of people, all hot and not ready for a long ride. I saw this brown van that looked like it had been lost in the desert for thirty years. Everybody got in the back so I got to lay down next to a giant block of melting ice behind the driver, all water, food, and supplies have to be hauled into camp.
The ride was hot and very bumpy, a washboard road surrounded by a huge desert of hundreds of cactuses and many shades of brown. There are many different types of cactus in Baja California, two species which are only found in the Baja: The Cardon cactus and the Boojum tree.
The Cardon looks like a cactus out of a roadrunner cartoon, and the Boojum looks like a carrot sticking out of the ground. The area, plants, and wildlife, including the lagoon, are preserved and protected as part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, as well as being a designated United Nations world heritage site.
We arrived at a fishing village, La Laguna and we took pictures of Pachico Mayoral’s house. He was the first to ever touch a whale in Laguna San Ignacio in 1972. His house was like a shack with fish nets and garbage all over, but at the same time it had a pretty flower garden and a gorgeous view.
We left La Laguna and got lost for 1 hour finally finding our way again to Campo Cortez! Camp was beautiful, it is in a cove area with a beach and a fossilized lava and sandstone rock area behind the canvas tents we slept in. I felt as though camp was in a desolate area, like it was on another planet, because there were no people or buildings anywhere for miles, the sand goes on forever like you're on Mars.
The food at camp is delicious, mostly meat, fish, chicken, or hot soup, with veggies , excellent tortillas and beans for meals. In the morning, we headed out for our first trip on the lagoon in a panga, an open style boat usually about 22 feet long. Our driver Maldo is called the Pangerro because he drives the pangas. He is also part owner of the company and is a real nice guy. He knows pretty good English and has a great personality
Once we got out on the pristine lagoon there was no wind, it was like a lake. The excitement of my first trip was like nothing I’ve ever felt before, a sheer amount of joy, even when you just see a gray whale it’s amazing!
It’s also pretty cool when people from National Geographic are filming you and your first time. The two young guys from National geographic, John and Mike, flew in the day we did. They were real funny and answered my questions about their work and travels. You don’t even expect to see any whales, but then they just start popping up, it’s awesome!
When we first got out, a baby whale was doing a bunch of spy hops, that’s where it sticks it’s whole head out of the water and it looks at you! She was also doing breeches so close to the boat, that’s where it launches it’s self out of the water as high as it can go. I remember one of our guests said, “I just want to touch it” and not ten minutes later a baby whale came right to him, allowing us all to touch a wild whale for our first time!!
The people at camp Campo Cortez are all so laid back, they are almost always in good spirits. The camp’s other naturalist Julie, an American woman, was like my big sister, we were always goofing around. All of the guests were nice; Jorge and Sophia and I really bonded well, they are from Arizona and were extremely nice. The other couple, Nancy and Charlie are from Salt Lake City, Utah. Nancy is a whale nut and Charlie was kind of along for the ride.
One night the Gitanos-(Gypsies), musicians came to camp to play for us. The music was melodic. They played a song from every Latin American country, we each had to chose a country and participate by joining the band and playing an instrument.
The wildlife at camp is astounding! There are over 90 different species of birds during the winter season including ospreys, terns, and geese. There are octopuses hiding under rocks, lots of fish and stingrays. I saw coyotes all over camp, they came around dusk and at night, some of the guests swore that they were right outside the tents at night, because we could hear them yelping and crying!
The last day at camp, on our last trip out on the lagoon, it was like every morning: beautiful, flat calm, not another boat in sight, and whales everywhere! A mom and calf came over and we got to touch and kiss them. Then another group of whales came over, so we had two moms and two babies playing and rolling and loving our attention! Soon after that two more whales came over to play, we saw a California sea lion, and then dolphins who later swam with our boats!! The best encounter of my trip. It was an incredible experience watching all these animals interact and play like they were humans, it was one of the most touching experiences of my life.
The long trek home was better, as I felt like everybody had been touched by these extraordinary creatures and we were changed for the rest of our lives.
+ Sharon Andersen: "The most incredible experience of my life"
Sharon travels to Baja with her two sisters and is rewarded with a l life changing experience as she and her sisters interact with the friendly Gray whales of San Ignacio Lagoon. "I have just had the most incredible, and possibly the most significant, experience of my life."
By Sharon Andersen
New York, New York
I have just had the most incredible, and possibly the most significant, experience of my life. I know that this experience is not yet over, not yet complete, because I am still processing it and trying to incorporate it and take in what it means and how it has changed me and continues to do so. That experience was a trip to the San Ignacio Lagoon to see the Gray Whales.
Words are totally inadequate to convey the feelings, the sights, the sounds and the whole aura surrounding my encounter with these amazing creatures. But I feel like I have to try, have to attempt to share the inner changings that are still occurring. As I sit here typing this, tears literally come to my eyes and I am once again filled with an overwhelming emotion and an incredulity that it ever even happened.
My sisters, Margaret and Christine, and I embarked on this journey on February 22, 2006 after a couple of years of planning, saving, and dreaming about seeing these gentle giants in their native surroundings. In spite of the excitement and the expectations, I don't think any of us had even an inkling of what this adventure held in store. We packed our gear, got our Mexican tourist card and endured a 14 hour bus trip from Tijuana to San Ignacio followed by a 2 hour van trip over dirt roads to arrive at Campo Cortez, our base for this wonderful, life-altering event. The area is a reserve for the whales and every precaution is taken to preserve the natural habitat. The camp itself is staffed by knowledgeable, caring people dedicated to keeping things as low impact as possible. Everything is run on solar and wind power and the basic accommodations are very comfortable. No frills - just spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the howling of coyotes, and the song of the wind and the whales. A perfect place to put aside all thoughts of the outside world and to focus on the reason for being there: the whales!
Prior to boarding the small boats and heading out into the lagoon, I had often wondered about being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of these animals. I never had any doubt that we would see the whales or thought that they simply would not be there. But what would it feel like? Would they seem mammoth? Would it be scary to be in a vessel much smaller than they are? Would we be engulfed by these creatures? Would they accept us or would they avoid us? Would they try to turn us over? Would we be simply overwhelmed?
That first afternoon and our first whale watch quickly pushed any fears, any doubts, any thought at all, right out of my mind. From the point of seeing the first blows in the distance and realizing that we were surrounded, literally surrounded, by these breathtaking beings, all thought of any kind disappeared. It became a happening that was all-engulfing, a phenomenon that was just an experience like no other. Were these animals physically huge? I don???know. I never even considered their bodily size. Many times in our six outings we would see part of a whale on one side of the boat and another large part of the same one on the other side or see an adult swimming along beside us stretching far beyond both the bow and the tiller, and yet, their body size simply meant nothing. Their bulk was not defining. They were not merely the largest animals on the planet. They were much more and I am still trying to connect with that.
We saw whales breach. We saw them spyhop (poke their heads straight up into the air). We saw them blow and delighted in the rainbows formed in the spray. We saw them swim along beside us. We saw them play games. We saw them mate. We went for rides on their backs. We splashed them with water as they splashed us. We sang to them and listened to their song. We watched them roll on their sides and look us in the eye. We laughed and enjoyed and felt the connection. And, yes, we touched them. We kissed them. We loved them and they loved us.
There was no fear here. No judgment. No expectations. Some of the whales just do their own thing and don't want to have anything to do with the boats and we delighted in them from a distance. Some of them are curious coming close but always just out of reach, teasing, and we enjoyed their antics. And some resemble Labrador puppies coming close to be touched and to share themselves. You can feel the gentleness and the strength and know that you are part of the same universe and share the same emotions on a certain level.
The whole experience was about trust and acceptance. I think I may now have some small idea of what unconditional love is all about. The phenomenal sense of well-being, of no worry, of knowing that all is well in your world is something that each of us should experience at least once in our lifetimes. And that is what I am still trying to understand and integrate. I may never fully get there but the seeds are planted. A glimpse has been granted. And for that I am eternally grateful.
+ Marie Dalcourt: "Another day to remember"
Marie writes of her incredible encounter with a pod of pilot whales while touring the Sea of Cortez with Baja Ecotours. "This was truly an amazing day for me and one I will never forget."
By Marie Dalcourt
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Incredible! A Pod of Pilot Whales! On a hot July day, headed to Los Islotes, a group of small islands on the Sea of Cortez that are home to a huge colony of Sea Lions we had the chance to meet a big pod of Pilot Whales.
They must have been at least one hundred all together! Big males,females and even babies! Right away, when we got closer, Johnny positioned the panga far ahead of the pod and turned off the motor. We then put on our snorkeling gear and jumped into the water!
What a feeling to see Pilot Whales so close and intimately! In blue, warm water we could see them clearly passing under and over us as they looked us directly in the eye!
We were almost able to touch them! And what a life experience when you make an eye contact with that majestic creature!
Another day to be remembered on the Sea of Cortez.
+ Steve Macial: "The best natural sightings of my 55 years on this planet."
Steve shares his experiences with us while on a snorkeling trip to La Paz. Encounters include swimming with sealions; swimming with pilot whales and dolphins. "An incredible life changing three days on the water."
By Steve Macial
Dana Point, CA
A friend of mine works with Johnny Friday during gray whale season in San Ignacio and turned me on to his activities in La Paz. What a find!! The best natural sightings of my 55 years on this planet. I have done Hawaii 10 or 12 times, love it there, beautiful water, snorkeling. Done U.S.Virgin Islands, Spanish and Italian coasts; Greek Isles for 6 weeks, but!!! the sights I saw in La Paz were the best!!
Snorkel Los Islotes!! Play with sea lions, incredible, fabulous snorkel spot!!! Went there three times in a week, in water 8 feet from 2 pilot whales passing under me, breeching manta rays, marlin, just an awesome, awesome trip. Johnny and his lady, Marie are totally nice, fun people. An hour after meeting them, it was like we had been friends for years. He would spot and go out to dolphins, stop his ponga and allow me to jump in the water at numerous spots besides the location I had chartered to go. All in all, I will!!!! be getting in touch with Johnny, Baja Ecotours and doing it again, soon! I recommend them to my closest friends, family - a great vacation. Do It!!!!!!
San Juan Capistrano, California
+ Peter Brueggeman: "Nothing like getting sprayed by whale breath!"
Peter writes of his family's flight and encounters down to the lagoon in a Cessna 182 private plane. This is Peter's second trip to the lagoon and his first with his young son Leo who made friends with the local children.
By Peter Brueggeman
San Diego, CA.
I went during February 16-20, 2001 and stayed four nights with Baja Ecotours. Ken Corben flew Kathy, Leo, and I down in a Cessna 182 Fairlane. The dirt airstrip at San Ignacio Lagoon was much improved since our trip six years earlier. After an exciting flight at low altitude, we landed on a dirt airstrip and caught a ride in the back of a pickup truck to our accommodations at Baja Ecotours: a canvas "cabin" in an expedition camp run by Maldo Fischer and Johnny Friday. Food was heavenly, three Mexican-cooked meals a day with fresh tortillas, salsa, guacamole, and lots of scallops and other seafood fresh from the lagoon.
Whale-watching from the small open boats was superb -- lots of spyhopping going on! We even got to touch a few of the more curious youngsters who would sidle up to the boat, seeking attention, mother whales hovering a few feet away. Nothing like getting sprayed by whale breath! This is a photo I took of Leo petting a baby gray whale, while Kathy looks on. Other activities included kayaking in the lagoon (I managed to capsize twice, much to Kathy and Leo's amusement!), estuarine mudflat walking in wader boots to look at seahares, moon snails, and other sea critters, and examining the numerous whalebones washed up on the beach. Leo had fun playing with some of the locals, and his Gameboy was an enormous draw each evening in the palapa. He even learned a few key Spanish phrases for Gameboy coaching, e.g. "Pone sobre el monstro! Jump on the monster!" Leo also picked up on some local nature lore, and perfected a pee-in-the- tidepool-hole technique for flushing out octopi! Leo and Kathy had a great time as did I.
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