Eye of the Whale – Chapter One

“The holy hangs undisturbed over the whales’ huge cradle.”
—Loren Eiseley.

It is early January. Beyond the Mexican border, the pregnant Gray Whale picks up her pace down the Pacific coast of Baja California, past Tijuana and Ensenada, San Quintín and El Rosario, into the Bahía de Sebastian Vizcaíno. She bypasses Laguna Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, which is frequented by more than half of the Gray Whales in her present condition. She continues south for another eighty miles. Here lies San Ignacio Lagoon, protected by sandbars from the pounding surf of the Pacific. She enters through an inlet into a wide channel. She moves as quickly as possible past a number of single males looking for courtship, beyond the outcropping called Punta Piedra or Rocky Point, onward for almost ten miles to a warm, shallow, isolated sector of the Middle Lagoon. Here she prepares to give birth.

Maintaining a stationary position, slowly she raises her tail flukes vertically above the surface and then lowers them again. For about ten minutes, this procedure is repeated. Then, underwater, her calf emerges, its flukes clutched to its chest. The umbilical cord, short and rigid, breaks off easily. The newborn is a dark, pinkish-gray color. At birth it is already fifteen feet long and weighs almost two thousand pounds. Within moments the calf swims for the surface to take its first breath. Its flippers and flukes are flaccid and rubbery, curled from being folded for twelve months inside the mother. Awkwardly its head lunges above the surface, then comes crashing down again.

At first, the baby doesn’t so much swim as dog-paddle but, within three hours, gains enough coordination to properly keep itself afloat. In the tranquility of the lagoon, undisturbed, the two rest and move with the changing tides. The newborn nurses underwater, having located its mother’s nipples less than an hour after birth, recessed in shallow folds on her belly along either side of her genital opening. The mother’s milk is so thick that it adheres easily to the baleen curtain inside the calf’s mouth. Her milk is more than fifty percent fat, about fifteen times more fat than is found in cow’s milk. Her milk also contains about six times the protein content of human milk, and has no sugar. For days, the mother strokes the baby with her broad flippers and rubs her body against its gathering strength.

“This species of whale manifests the greatest affection for its young, and seeks the sheltered estuaries lying under a tropical sun, as if to warm its offspring into activity and promote comfort, until grown to the size Nature demands for its first northern visit.” – Charles Melville Scammon, 1874.

Soon the baby will be cavorting around, even breaching and landing right on its mother – and she will deem it ready for deeper water. Traveling close to its mother’s midsection, where the water passing between the pair helps pull it along, after a few weeks the calf will leave the nursery. In the Lower Lagoon, it will encounter the first taste of strong tides near the mouth of the channel – and perhaps the first touch of a human being.

One does not pass easily into the sanctum of San Ignacio Lagoon. Of course, I did not know this when I set out near the close of the Gray Whale birthing season. I made advance reservations at a whale watching campground called Kuyima. During my periodic visits to southern Baja, I generally took a plane. This time, my wife Alice and I planned to drive south from Los Angeles and explore the countryside along the way. Going overland with our ten-year-old nephew and two close friends would be an adventure. David Gude had already taken the old Dodge Travco motor-home on several previous Baja excursions.

Geographically, Baja California is the longest and narrowest peninsula on earth. It stretches for more than eight hundred miles and varies no more than sixty or seventy miles across at any given point. The Pacific Ocean borders the western side, from Tijuana down to the popular resort town of Cabo San Lucas. To the east, between the peninsula and the mainland of Mexico, flows the Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortés. Over millions of years, this vein of the Pacific formed gradually as tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault separated the two land masses. While mainland Mexico was evolving complex civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs, Baja remained primitive and isolated, peopled by a few wandering hunter-gatherer tribes.

This land route toward the winter home of the Gray Whales is still a rugged and arid place. The Transpeninsular Highway that snakes for 1,050 miles between Baja’s two coastlines was only completed in 1973. Before then, you either flew into small private airstrips or expected to spend a month or more traveling on dirt roads. We headed south past Ensenada and onto a two-lane paved road that wound through treacherous mountain passes into the Central Desert. Max, our young nephew, insisted on stopping to explore the granite boulder field of Cataviña, with its remarkable desert vegetation. I walked in with him among the giant cardón cactuses, spiraling upward like medieval candelabra. The tallest cacti on the planet, some reach nearly seventy feet high, weigh as much as ten tons, and are believed to be more than two hundred years old. Here, too, are the spindly boojum trees, found only in Baja. They look like inverted carrots and are named after the creatures in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.

As we climbed onto a rise, I explained to Max that Baja seemed always to have possessed a kind of enchantment. Not far from here, almost five hundred prehistoric murals had been discovered tucked away in the overhangs of canyons. They are popularly known as the cave paintings. In vivid colors of red and black, they portray springing mountain lions, buck deer contesting with their antlers, native shamans with elaborate head-dresses and outstretched arms. Some of them, many miles of desert from the sea, depict huge whales.

Within the images of a single cave, archaeologists have noted age differences of more than three thousand years. Yet no one knows who did the cave paintings, or how old they really are. Or, indeed, how anyone could possibly have fashioned them. No traces of scaffolding have ever been found. So how did the artists manage to cover a vertical wall twenty-five feet off the ground with image after image? Even if these ancient designers used ladders or scaffolds, how had they drawn eight foot high figures in the deep recesses of a cave with such precision? At the end of the seventeenth century, missionaries were told by local Indians that the murals had been created by a race of giants.

The first Westerners known to have landed on Baja were a ship’s crew dispatched by Hernan Cortés, looking for an “island of pearls” that the Spanish conquistador had heard about from the Aztec ruler Moctezuma. During the 1500s, a popular chivalric romance narrative also made mention of a race of Amazon women who ruled a gold-filled island. Their queen was called Califia, the place California. The early Spanish expeditioners apparently believed that the Baja terrain resembled that of the fictional island. Indeed, Baja was widely thought to be an island until the end of the seventeenth century. This was the first California. The peninsula would later be called Lower California, as differentiated from its neighboring American territory. (The Spanish adjective “Baja” means geographically lower).

Faced with unfriendly Indians and food and water shortages, Cortés’s early notion of founding a colony in Baja was soon abandoned. Not for 150 years would Europeans evince any further interest. When Jesuit missionaries began arriving during the eighteenth century, one of their memoirs described the region as “nothing but rocks, cliffs, declivitous mountains, and measureless sandy wastes, broken only by impossible granite walls.” Now I watched as my nephew scrambled to the top of a massive boulder to pose as “king of the mountain.”

Our last gas stop was the dusty desert town of Guerrero Negro, named after a whaling ship (Black Warrior) that sank trying to enter its lagoon to hunt Gray Whales in 1859. East of here, the Sierra de San Francisco mountains loom abruptly above the many miles of scrub and cactus that line the desert plain. The Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses San Ignacio’s and two other Gray Whale lagoons, stretches across more than 2.5 million hectares. It is the largest such protected area in all of Latin America. This region is the last remaining habitat for less than one hundred Peninsular Pronghorn antelope, or Berrendo. These deer-like animals can endure long periods without water and resist extreme heat by regulating their body temperature through hollow hairs, which they move by way of muscular tissue beneath the skin. Sprinting to speeds of 55 miles an hour, they are one of the fastest mammals in the world.

After two-and-a-half days on the road, the old mission town of San Ignacio was a welcome sight. The Cochimí Indians called it Kadakaaman, “the place of the reeds,” for it is fed by an underground river. Thick groves of Arabian date palms and citrus, first planted by Jesuit missionaries about three hundred years ago, remain the primary means of livelihood for the town’s nearly one thousand residents. We parked at the edge of a square shaded by huge laurel trees, behind which stands one of Baja’s most beautiful churches. It was constructed of nearly four-feet-thick lava block walls between 1728 and 1786.

From William H. Gabb, The Settlement and Exploration of Lower California, 1867: “San Ignacio is a village with a population, including the suburbs, of about 20 families. The only buildings of any importance in the place are those belonging to the mission….The church buildings, consisting of the church itself, and two lateral wings, one of which is prolonged into an L, are in excellent repair, and are the most imposing buildings of this class in the territory. They are very solidly built of stone with arched roofs….

“The residents here claim that a good port exists below here, which they call the ‘Laguna.’ I had not time to visit it, but Captain Scammon, who is familiar with every nook and corner of this coast, has doubtless described it in full in his report.”

According to our map, the Laguna was thirty-eight miles to the south. At the Kuyima camp’s main office in town, I was told that the road from here on was a rough one. Just how rough, I could not have envisioned. Immediately upon departing the town, we found ourselves on a bone-jarring, washboard dirt track. It was impossible to move faster than ten to fifteen miles an hour – especially in a twenty-year-old motor home. A hot sun beat down incessantly on the thick-trunked elephant trees, cardón forest, and yucca cactus dominating a horizon capped by flat-topped clay cliffs. After about two hours, we spotted a section of tidal salt flats to the west. Occasional salt mounds and piles of shells dotted the roadside. There were no mileage signs delineating the lagoon, but I guessed we must be getting close.

Six p.m. A dragon-fire sunset looming. Over a particularly rutted sector, David tried edging the camper to the far right where the road seemed a little smoother. The road’s shoulder suddenly turned to soft sand. Our wheels spun. We came to a lurching halt. Our motor home was mired almost up to the front axle, and the two rear left tires were both off the ground. We were hovering at the edge of a five-foot-deep gully, perilously close to tumbling into it.

We’d not seen a single vehicle since leaving the oasis. We located a small trenching shovel. Brian Keating, a friend who’d come along to take pictures of the whales, joined David in attempting to dig out enough sand to jack up the front wheel. Alice, Max, and I gathered what few rocks we could find in the desert, hoping they might supply some traction. Twenty minutes went by. The situation looked pretty hopeless. I suggested to Alice that the two of us should start walking and try to find help. It would be dark soon, but the moon was full. I figured that the Kuyima campground couldn’t be more than a few miles further. Max insisted on coming along. Carrying a small flashlight, the three of us set out into the gathering dusk.

Off to the west, the lagoon’s northern arm shimmered where it meets the salt flats. There water and land appeared to melt into one another across this minimalist’s landscape. There, I realized, Mitsubishi and Mexico planned to cover more than 50,000 hectares with salt ponds. Across the other side of the lagoon, the volcanic granite domes of the Sierra Santa Clara mountains were barely visible through the haze. Where the lagoon commenced, I could make out a long sand barrier island, Isla Pelicanos, and another that the map listed as Isla Garzas. Salt-tolerant plants – pickleweed and meado de sapo (toad piss) – sprouted near the lagoon shoreline. A flotilla of driftwood lay exposed across a sea of mud, accentuating the feeling of being marooned. I remembered how the Baja coastlines had been a haven for pirates, primarily English who set upon Spanish galleons. One of these British brigands had landed in Lower California in 1709 with a passenger he’d rescued from a lonely Pacific island. This was Alexander Selkirk, who became the model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Mirages clouded my vision. Night descended. Probably three miles from our vehicle now, we crossed a small bridge and came to an unmarked crossroads. Having no idea which direction might lead to the Kuyima camp, we went straight. Another mile. We could see headlights approaching. I flagged down a pick-up. Three burly men sat in the front seat. My heart pounding, I mustered as much Spanish as I could from long-ago college days. How far to Kuyima camp? I asked. About twenty kilometers ahead, one replied – if this is the right road. But if we kept walking, another said with a grin, there was a village a couple of miles down. They roared off.

We kept walking. For what seemed an eternity, I could see headlights in the distance behind us. By now, we had walked at least five miles. Finally, a car pulled to a stop. A Mexican woman was at the wheel, a man and boy in the back-seat. They’d never heard of Kuyima. Hop in the front, she said, she would take us to the village.

Such as it was. At the bottom of a steep hill, the car pulled up beside a little compound consisting of two wooden houses. We disbarked. Near the far dwelling, I saw a man walking toward a parked vehicle and raced over to him. “Habla inglés?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied. He was stocky, balding and bearded, and looked to be in his fifties. I explained our plight, that our camper had broken down and was in desperate need of a tow.

“Well,” the man said with a broad smile and something of a Western drawl, “I guess if I can haul the Titanic, I can haul you.”

He extended his hand and introduced himself as John Spencer. “You’re lucky, I just got in yesterday from Idaho.” He walked into a shed and returned with two Coronas and a Pepsi. “Just relax, come on in and have some dinner with us. Then we’ll get you out of your fix.”

He pushed open a screen door. Inside a candle-lit, clay-walled dwelling that served as a combined kitchen and living room, about a dozen men stood against a wall, eating from paper plates. “These are the most wonderful people you’re ever gonna meet,” our host said. As he introduced three generations of the family, each gave a nod. The only one sitting down, in a folding chair, was a thin, elderly gentleman missing several front teeth. “El Jefe,” John Spencer said, and bowed.

He motioned to a table where a stack of tortillas waited to be filled with meat. “Get yourselves a plate. Sorry I don’t have enough to take to your friends, we weren’t really expecting company.” I noticed a gold earring hanging from John’s right earlobe. It was a whale’s tail.

Ten minutes and two delicious tacos later, we followed John and most of the others outside. The men piled into the back of a heavy-duty modified pick-up with oversized wheels and a winch attached to the front bumper. PACIFIC MOVERS – HEAVY HAULERS was emblazoned along the side. Only later would I learn that John Spencer had indeed been the supervisor who built the infrastructure that tilted some two thousand tons with hydraulic jacks – as the Titanic sank in the last scene of 1997’s Oscar-winning film.

John sped off onto a sandy track, shifting into four-wheel-drive as the lagoon suddenly surfaced alongside us. He flipped on a tape-deck and began singing along to an old Creedence Clearwater tune. “I see a bad moon risin’�.” Then he winked at me.

“See, that road you’re stuck on is actually one of the best in the world,” John said. “Because if they ever pave it, the lagoon is gone. Too damn many people would start showing up.” For the last twenty-five years, John continued, he’d been making an annual pilgrimage to the San Ignacio Lagoon. “I’m driven by something,” he said, “something very personal. If I don’t come here, my life falls apart. It’s that simple. I don’t know whether it’s the people or the whales. Probably both.”

He pointed up a steep rise toward the main road. “Think that must be your vehicle up there.” The pick-up jolted up the gully, swung around, and skidded to a halt just beyond our camper. The men jumped out and began setting up lights. By now, David and Brian had managed to almost free the front tires. “We’d probably have had the rear ones out in a day or two,” David said, as John advanced with a cable to our front bumper.

Brian shook his head in wonderment at our coterie of rescuers. “Where did they come from?” I smiled and said: “Magical reality. This is right out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.”

David took the wheel again. Alice, Max, Brian, and I stood in the desert below, well out of range of the tilting Travco in case something went awry. John gunned the pick-up’s engine into reverse, backing what appeared ominously close to another ditch across the road. The cable strained against the winch. The old camper stalled a couple of times. Then, as quickly as we’d become derailed, we were back on course.

Our rescuers waved good bye and disappeared into the night. Slowly we proceeded on toward the lagoon. We passed by the little village, darkened now, and down a winding road skirting the moonlit water. About five miles further, we arrived at Kuyima and pitched a tent where the desert embraced the sea. The Pleiades seemed to be hovering just above the horizon in a star-filled sky. I thought of the “strange beasts and fishes” I’d seen described in a nineteenth-century book about Baja: an eight-armed giant squid, a manta ray that required six men to lift it with blocks-and-tackles. Overhead an osprey circled silently.

Somewhere out there, four of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are resting in the shallows: leatherbacks, hawksbill, green turtles, olive ridleys, all endangered species, all come to feed on the eelgrass, the clams, the snails and sponges. Somewhere out there, brown and white pelicans, egrets and herons, and half the world’s population of a seagoing goose called the brant are nesting near the turtles. Somewhere out there, fishermen may be harvesting pismo clams and the big ones they call mano de leon, hand of the lion. Somewhere out there, Gray Whales exhaled a heart-shaped mist.

Somewhere out there, I heard a resounding splash.

“Armed with the only chart in existence, a century-old map, we arrived at Laguna San Ignacio. Except for mention of it in the early missionary records of the 1700s, we had discovered that almost nothing was known about ‘La Laguna’ by anyone other than the handful of Mexican fishing families. The lagoon remained much as it did in pre-Spanish days.”

  • Marine biologists Mary Lou Jones and Steven Swartz, describing their entry into San Ignacio Lagoon in 1977.

The chart used by Jones and Swartz had been drawn by Charles Melville Scammon. It was Scammon’s brother-in-law, Jared Poole – a whaling captain from San Francisco by way of the Massachusetts isle of Martha’s Vineyard – who was actually the first to spy the inviting mouth of San Ignacio Lagoon. The year was 1858, and Poole could find no safe point of entry. Over the centuries, the tides and prevailing winds had deposited sand which formed barrier islands, behind which rushed strong tidal flows. The sand-bar stretching across the mouth of the lagoon carried little more than twelve feet of water at high tide. Not enough, Poole reasoned, for a ship to pass through.

Poole knew that Scammon had been whaling in Lower California for several years, in fact had been the first to penetrate another lagoon eighty miles to the north. After an arduous journey, Scammon had found it teeming with Gray Whales. His crew had taken forty-seven in three months, yielding a whopping 1,700 barrels of whale oil that brought about $15,000 on the San Francisco market. To find yet another untapped whaling ground seemed worth whatever perils might present themselves. And if anyone could find an opening, it would be Scammon.

So it was that Scammon’s Ocean Bird – accompanied by Poole’s and five other whaling vessels – cast anchor offshore of the southern boundary of the Vizcaino Desert. The new lagoon was in sight. Latitude 26 40′ N and longitude 112 15′ W, Scammon noted in his logbook. The Captain quickly realized that the winds here appeared to be more dependable than at any other point he’d visited along the peninsula’s coast. A strong morning land-breeze, coupled with an equally good afternoon sea-breeze, could probably propel even a three hundred ton bark through the narrow northernmost channel.

He was right. After one of the smaller tenders managed to make it inside and find a good anchorage, the bigger vessels sailed through the currents relatively easily. It was now early in 1860, the year of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Scammon would save a San Francisco newspaper article for his scrapbooks, referring to himself as the discoverer, “for all practical purposes” of this “inland sea.” The article went on: “Though a few natives and Indians have always been aware of the facts, it evidently is unknown to geographers, for in no published maps – from the earliest periods down to the present time – is any such body of water laid down.”

This lagoon, which Scammon first called simply Ballenas (Whales), wasn’t nearly as large as the one he’d already discovered. San Ignacio Lagoon extended into the desert for about sixteen miles, reaching a maximum width of five miles. Not long after their arrival, Scammon and a few of his crew set out to explore the area. Scammon observed flocks of gray gulls covering the shell-laden beaches of its islands. Pelicans and cormorants filled the air and surrounding waters. Hawks had built high nests of dry sticks. Around the shores, huge green turtles in large numbers lay sleeping. Shoals of cow-fish and porpoise, Scammon would write, “played their undulating gambols.”

The men proceeded a few miles along the banks of an arroyo, when they were met by a group of Mexicans on mules. Scammon spoke Spanish. An old man, who called himself Don José and appeared to be a sort of patriarch, informed him that he had many times come down from the mountains but never seen another soul.

Nowhere along the lagoon was there any sign of wood, fresh water, or human habitation. Scammon did come upon remnants of Indian culture – shells and charcoal, stone artifacts including awls and basalt milling stones. The countryside in the immediate vicinity consisted of sandy plain or low marsh. It was nearly level and extremely barren: a few stunted mesquite-trees, scatterings of a species of rush-grass. To the southwest, Scammon could see a long tableland that rose to a height of a thousand feet. The men passed through a forest of cardón cactus and ascended to the summit. There was nothing inland but wild, mountainous country as far as the eye could see.

Scammon observed something else along the margins of the lagoon: vast natural salt ponds, produced by the natural process of evaporation. “These salt deposits are of infinite extent,” the San Francisco press would report in 1863, “and exist in all directions around the borders of the lake. There are also evidences of great mineral wealth in the highlands.”

The other great wealth was the California Gray Whales – hundreds of them during the winter calving season. Whalers bestowed a number of names upon this species. One was “Mussel-Digger,” for its propensity to descend to the soft bottoms and then surface with its head smeared with dark mud. Anther was “Hard-Head,” for its ability to “root the boats” with a quick upward movement, like a hog upsetting a trough. The most telling designation was “Devil-fish.” Other types of whales generally reacted to a harpoon only once the line was taut; the Grays would respond at the first piercing of the iron. One captain called Gray Whales “a cross ‘tween a sea-serpent and an alligator.” A young seaman wrote home: “No steamer’s paddle wheels can cause such a watery commotion as an angry Gray Whale’s fins and flukes.”

When the parent animal is attacked, they show a power of resistance and tenacity of life that distinguish them from all other Cetaceans. Many an expert whaleman has suffered in his encounters with them, and many a one has paid the penalty with his life.” – Charles Melville Scammon, 1874.

A fuchsia sun is rising. Several traditional Mexican fishing boats, small motorized skiffs called pangas, are moored to rocks just off the beach. Seagulls doze on the rails. A slight distance from our camper, several other visitors are emerging from tents. We meet them over breakfast, two couples who are old friends. One is a middle-aged man who wrote such popular Sixties folk songs as “Lemon Tree” and today runs a successful management consulting business in California. As he describes their first experience yesterday on the lagoon, to my surprise his eyes suddenly brim with tears. “When you have an experience with these whales,” he says, “you come out a different person.”

What does Kuyima mean? I ask a rotund, bearded fellow named Carlos Varela who supervises the camp’s operation. “Light in the darkness,” he replies.

Teresa, an American woman who’s married to Carlos and cooks the camp’s meals, reminds us that the lagoon is a sanctuary. The Mexican government regulates the number of skiffs allowed in the water. Only twelve boats, most of them licensed to three tourist camps along the lagoon, can be out there at any given time. Various areas within the lagoon are managed separately. No boats are permitted in the southern inlet, or upper lagoon, where the Gray Whale calves are nurtured. Our group will be confined to the more open stretches of the north inlet, where the calves are older. “We have very strict rules about whale-watching,” Teresa adds. “If the whales come to the boat, that’s their choice. The drivers are instructed that they can’t go within thirty meters of a whale.”

Shortly after ten a.m., Carlos calls everyone over – the five of us and the two couples – to be fitted with life jackets. He’s wearing shorts and a Baja bush pilot cap. He offers parting instructions. “Don’t everyone jump to the same side of the panga if the whales come to you. You can touch them – but not the eyes, or the blowholes, the fins and the tail. These are very sensitive parts of the whale. The trip to the observation area takes around fifteen or twenty minutes. Today is very calm, and I think it will be fast.”

We all shed shoes and roll up our pant legs, wading out through the mud at slack tide and crawling up onto the stern of the twenty-six-foot-long panga. The water is tranquil and glistening as our driver motors out, bound for an eighty-foot-deep channel in the Lower Lagoon. Visible to the north, several miles inland, is a magnificent stretch of dunes. Looking across the neck of the lagoon, I can see leathery-leafed red mangroves on the western shore. After about twenty minutes, we round a tiny peninsula not far from the lagoon mouth. This is Punta Piedra, or Rocky Point. There’s an American whale watching campground here called Baja Discovery, perched above a sandstone beach. The currents moving seaward beyond the point are strong and steady. Flocks of brown cormorants fly overhead. Caspian terns with bright orange bills and black crowns flap their wings, preparing to dive at the silvery flash of mullet near the surface. Every year some eighty different species of shorebirds and waterfowl arrive from northern latitudes to winter here, at the same season that the Gray Whales find refuge in these still waters.

All eyes scan the surface. The Gray Whale is said to be instantly recognizable, for its lack of a dorsal fin. Instead, it possesses a low hump two-thirds of the way along the back, followed by a series of knuckle-like ridges that extend down to the broad tail flukes. The gray is also the most heavily barnacled of whales, carrying up to a ton of these little limestone-shelled creatures on their bodies. Our guide motions to a spot about fifty yards ahead. I glimpse a massive torpedo shape, an arched back, a huge angular nose pointed down. A fan-shaped geyser of sea water erupts and then subsides with a whoosh. I imagine the plume of spray could be seen for miles. Suddenly the ten-foot-long, heart-shaped flukes arch heavenward as the whale dives, leaving behind the cascade of a sparkling waterfall.

The skipper cuts back on the throttle, moving in slowly. A mother, followed closely by her baby, swims just ahead. The panga stays parallel and a little behind at first, letting the whales take the lead. Gradually our captain overtakes them and passes about thirty feet beyond. He puts the engine into idle. “Las Amistosas,” he says, leaning forward and pointing one finger. The friendly whales. One of our companions, an acupuncturist who’d been out the day before, suggests we all lean over the sides and “brush” the water outward with both hands. He says the whales respond to the sound.

Yes, abruptly, magically, there they are, only a few feet away from the starboard side. Inches below the surface, they appear not so much gray as whitish-blue. The immensity of these creatures is overwhelming. Fully grown they reach at least thirty-five feet in length, and weigh more than thirty tons – ten times the size of a large elephant. The mother dwarfs our little boat. The calf is nearly one-third her size. With a mere flick of the tail, either whale could overturn us. My heart is racing. Yet, curiously, I feel no trace of fear.

The mother uses her body as a natural breakwater for her calf, seeming to coax it towards the boat. Slowly, the baby makes the rounds of each person’s outstretched hands. I’d expected a feeling like hard leather, but the skin is rubbery, shiny, and amazingly soft. The whales circle the bow, advancing again down the port side. Trailing close to her calf, now the mother raises her long, tapered head to be touched. Her skin is more mottled, covered with a patchwork of sea lice and barnacles. But she, too, feels surprisingly elastic.

As the two whales reach out to commune with our human realm, my mind is devoid of thought. Only later, for days thereafter, will images re-emerge for conscious reflection. For the timeless minutes that the whales are alongside, I seem almost to be holding my breath. It’s a primordial feeling, ancient beyond words. A fusion of two worlds, capsizing time and space. Indeed, there is a dinosaur-like quality to their faces. Now I could swear I saw a Gray Whale smile by my fingertips. Tears well up behind my eyelids.

Leaving a foam of bubbles as they take simultaneous breaths, the pair dive beneath the surface and glide away with extraordinary grace. There is not a hint of clumsiness in their movements, as if they are taking extreme care not to send even a ripple toward the boat. Sensitivity feels magnified a thousandfold. We are mute.

The waiting begins. Across the main channel leading out into the Pacific, I can see a few other pangas being similarly approached. We must have patience. Here on San Ignacio Lagoon, the incessantly-paced Information Age pales into insignificance. One becomes more accepting of the natural rhythms of time and of place.

A swirl of Black Brant geese, like the whales come all the way from Alaska, calls from overhead. A fish leaps. The saw-toothed peaks of the Sierra Santa Clara mountains to the west are swathed in a high-noon sun. I glimpse a silhouette on the water, which I learn is a “fluke print” left by a recently-surfaced whale. As our panga closes to within about thirty feet of another boat, a mother and baby come calling again. The “little one” seems to realize the presence of my nephew on board, eager to rub against young Max’s waiting hands.

Alice leans far over the bow rail. A fountain of spray surges from the depths. It resembles a hibiscus flower opening its petals. Others have described such spouting as offensive, but these whales haven’t eaten in months and the smell seems fragrant. My wife turns, her clothes dripping wet but shouting with joy, a look of wonder etched across her face. Baptized.

On the bow, David begins humming a lonely tune. Both whales swim right up to him, as if somehow they are listening, responding to the plaintive sound. Their own tones, as scientists have listened through underwater microphones, are generally low rumblings; some have been compared to the metallic ring of Caribbean steel drums. The sounds often take the form of loud clicks – not unlike that of a boy placing a finger in his mouth and popping his cheek. Such “talk,” it’s been learned, increases when a Gray Whale maneuvers toward a boat. It’s also a way for a mother to call her calf.

Now, as their faces crane out of the water, one sees a kind of parrot-beaked countenance, an upper jaw that overhangs the lower. The triangular heads are bow-shaped, comprising about one-sixth of their body length. The wide, capacious mouth contains no teeth. I glimpse the hairlike bristles of the long baleen plates, with which they obtain food from the currents and sediments.

“The baleen, of which the longest portion is fourteen to sixteen inches, is of a light brown or nearly white, the grain very coarse, and the hair or fringe on the bone is much heavier and not so even as that of the Right Whale or Humpback…….The eye, the ball of which is at least four inches in diameter, is situated about five inches above and six inches

behind the angle of the mouth.” – Charles Melville Scammon, 1874.

The eye….Along the edge of the boat, once more the mother surges upward. She turns on her side and appears to gaze at us out of one eye. Gray Whales are said to have brown eyes, but this one looks moonstone-blue. It’s the size of a baseball, intense and riveting. The look exchanged penetrates to one’s very depths. It feels as though I am being “read” by the whale, that my entire life – for one endless moment – is an open book.

Mother and baby swim directly under the panga, resurfacing on the other side. Riding one of her powerful pectoral flippers, the calf pushes up until its head is level with the stern. I touch something fine, coarse, and cream-colored. In my hand, it feels like a thick mustache. It’s hard to believe, but the whale wants its gums rubbed. I find myself shouting with delight. The baby wriggles, slaps the water with its fluke, emits a gentle plume of vapor, and vanishes.

Not far away, another boat is being approached. Near the stern, a man smiles and waves at us. It’s John Spencer, bare-chested and wearing swimming trunks. He leans far over the side and cradles the head of a mother whale between his hands. Then, as if playing a game known only to the pair of them, he gently twists the whale’s head until she submerges in another burst of foam. I see John tugging at his whale’s-tail earring. He waves again.

After three hours on the lagoon, our skipper prepares to head back. Off to starboard, two whales hover together in the turquoise sea, side by side, motionless, bidding farewell. As a single unit, all nine of us aboard the panga stand and face them. Nobody speaks. In their presence, we are utterly humbled.

The whales dive and disappear.

We are more than captivated. We are captured.


How does this phenomenon happen? Why do the gray whales greet their former predators with “open arms” at the San Ignacio Lagoon? Marine biologists have made prosaic guesses: the whales’ barnacles are uncomfortable, and they like to scratch against small boats. Or they are attracted to the sound of the panga’s engine. Or they are simply curious about our presence.

Yet even in relatively recent times, Gray Whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon could hardly be considered “friendly.” Early in 1948, the first scientific expedition to the lagoon was undertaken by Dr. Carl Hubbs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Hubbs was accompanied by the actor Errol Flynn, whose father was a marine biologist at the University of Belfast and a friend of Hubbs. The plan was that Flynn might do a documentary film, and the well-known star of swashbuckling films put up funding for a plane to transport the crew and a helicopter from which to film the whales. This was the first time a helicopter would be utilized for scientific research – and the Gray Whales didn’t seem to care for the idea one bit.

Here’s the account of what happened by Lewis Wayne Walker, another member of the team. “On the first few flights it was obvious that the nearness of the helicopter disturbed the whales, causing them usually to seek deeper water. However, by hovering behind and to one side, we found it possible to herd the animals in any desired direction, and before long subjects to be photographed were being coaxed into shallow stretches where deep dives were impossible and where muddy trails lingered as sinuous paths against the normal blue of the lagoon. After this had been done a few times, we noticed a decided change in whale temperament. Instead of swimming along in a placid manner, some of the Grays churned the water with flukes and fins until their wakes became swirling cauldrons of foam. Before such displays of angry power, the pilot invariably lifted the craft to a safe 25 or 30 feet.”

Walker continued: “On our arrival at San Ignacio Lagoon the Mexican fishermen scoffed at the traits of meanness so often ascribed to the whales in the works of Scammon, and they rowed their pangas through groups of whales with impunity. The large beasts often scattered at their approach. However, after the elusive helicopter had pestered the whales for a full week, they evidently became more like the ‘Devil Fish’ of old.”

Walker recounted that, on his last day, “cleaning up campsites and paying off debts incurred by the expedition, a boatload of excited natives hurried to the command car and told of the persistent attack by a mother ballena. They had been crossing the channel to reset turtle nets and barely gave a second thought to a whale that submerged after a noisy blow. Suddenly, however, they were thrown from their standing positions at the oars�.The initial strike was the hardest of the attack, and they felt that the boat’s combination of flat bottom, extreme buoyancy, and small size was all that prevented a cave-in of the stern. The whale continued to batter and nudge as oars were used on her broad nose to push the craft shoreward. She only desisted when the water became so shallow that her wake was a ribbon of brown mud.”

If the Gray Whales were sending a cease-and-desist message to the Hubbs-Flynn crew, it came through loud-and-clear. Due to various engine problems, the helicopter had to do three forced landings in less than a week. Then, on the way back home, a small Piper Cub carrying Hubbs and a companion went down in sudden hurricane-force winds in what one newspaper called “a near miss from death.”

At Scammon’s Lagoon to the north, researchers faced similar reactions from the whales. In 1956, Dr. Paul Dudley White journeyed there in an attempt to record the heartbeat of a Gray Whale on a cardiograph. White was a cardiac specialist who had supervised President Eisenhower’s recovery from a heart attack. He and Donald Douglas, manufacturer of the airplanes bearing that name, planned to hand-insert small darts with wires attached into a Gray Whale. In his book Hunting the Desert Whale, Erle Stanley Gardner, the mystery writer of Perry Mason fame, told what ensued:

“A whale came charging up to the boat, smashed the rudder to smithereens, knocked off the propeller and bent the drive shaft at a forty-five degree angle – all with one blow of his tail. Then he swam away a little distance, turned around, looked at what he had done, took a deep breath and charged, smashing in the side of the boat.

“If it hadn’t been for executive ability of a high order and a perfectly co-ordinated effort, those men would have been plunged into shark-infested waters. But as it was, they worked with speed and efficiency. They stripped off life preservers, stuffed them into the hole, took a piece of canvas, wrapped it around the outside of the boat, signaled for help and, by frantic bailing, were able to keep afloat until a rescue boat, which had been standing by just in case there should be any trouble, was able to come and tow them into shallow water.”

In 1963, a diver trying to get photographs of the Gray Whales for the Scripps Institution found himself “attacked” by a large female that took four swats at him with her tail in Scammon’s Lagoon. Later in the 1960s, a team of divers working for Jacques Cousteau decided to chase a female gray whale for several hours in a motorized zodiac. Finally she turned, breached, landed on top of the rubber boat, and destroyed it.

The first documented shift in the Gray Whales’ behavior occurred at the San Ignacio Lagoon in 1976. That winter, a large vessel called the Royal Polaris passed through the still-treacherous channel and dropped anchor in roughly the same spot as Scammon’s Ocean Bird once had. It was carrying a group of Americans on a nature study tour sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates Travel Program. They’d sailed down from San Diego, stopping along the way for beach walks, tide-pool wades, bird-watching climbs, and shell-collecting rambles. Now they’d come for a look at California Gray Whales, which had rebounded by then to a population of over ten thousand.

A New York Times travel story, published the year before, had first brought the possibility of a lagoon voyage to millions of readers. Reporter Jack Goodman went out in a small dinghy and “after watching a big gray for a time and seeing a calf swimming in the shelter of her 50-foot-long flank, I wondered how men could ever take the lives of such fascinating, obviously intelligent creatures. At times, when we pulled abreast of a whale and held a speed equal to the gray’s slow gait, we could peer directly into one of the creature’s widely separated eyes – and discern that it was peering back at us with more than mild curiosity. Or was it?”

Twelve people aboard the Royal Polaris, more than any before them, were about to receive an answer to that question. It was the early morning of February 16, 1976, and they’d gone out in two aluminum skiffs about the same size as the old wooden harpoon boats. Afterwards, at the captain’s request, each would set down what they remembered about their stunning adventure. One described a whale they dubbed “Primo” which at first was feared “would capsize our skiff.” But after swimming under and scratching its back, the Gray lifted its head for about forty-five minutes of petting by everyone aboard.

As the phenomenon persisted through the month, on February 29 the Los Angeles Times ran a page one “head-shot” of a Gray Whale nicknamed “Nacho” surfacing beside and nuzzling a raft. That summer of 1976, the San Diego Union began another front-page story with the question: “Is the California gray whale reaching détente with humans? There is increasing evidence that it is.”

As I was about to find out, the first close encounter had actually occurred several years earlier than that. We were finishing lunch in the Kuyima camp’s dining area when John Spencer arrived in his pick-up. He had someone with him. It was the elderly Mexican whom he’d identified as “El Jefe” the night before. “You tell me you’re a journalist,” John said. “Well, this is someone you should talk to. He speaks a little English. His name’s actually Pachico. He was the first person to experience what you did today.”

I sat down with Francisco (“Pachico”) Mayoral in the shade outside the thatch-roofed Kuyima palapa. Pachico appeared to be part Indian. His face was wizened and furrowed. He said he was about to turn sixty, but looked older. I could not look away from his penetrating dark eyes. Through a combination of my halting Spanish and Pachico’s broken English, we managed to communicate. In February of 1972, he had been out alone in his panga, fishing for grouper, when a Gray Whale surfaced alongside him. He was well aware that small boats generally kept their distance from them. He was surprised at first, and rather frightened. But when the animal lingered, Pachico felt himself compelled to place a hand in the water. The whale rubbed up against him, remaining almost motionless.

That was the beginning.

“The whales,” he said, placing a hand over his heart, “they are my family.”

He lit a cigarette. What do the ballenas mean to you? I asked. “I have not the words to express,” Pachico continued. “The rest of my life since, I have activity with the scientists, the tourists, and the whales.”

He had guided numerous marine biologists into the lagoon to study the Gray Whales’ mysterious behavior. A few years ago, shortly before Christopher Reeve had the tragic horseback accident that left him paralyzed, it was Pachico who shepherded the actor out onto these waters for Reeve’s narration of a Gray Whale documentary.

“The whales enter the lagoon and come to me,” Pachico added. “You see, I have a position.” I must have looked puzzled, trying to grasp what he was saying, and he laughed. Then he repeated: “The whales, they are my family.”

Pachico glimpsed John Spencer emerging from the Kuyima dining room. “John,” he added, “my very, very good friend.”

Pachico got into the front seat of the pick-up alongside him, and disappeared in a swirl of dust.

Later, I would consider the curious timing of Pachico’s initial meeting with a Gray Whale. In 1972, the Mexican government had decreed a “Reserve and Refuge Area for Migratory Birds and Wildlife” at the San Ignacio Lagoon habitat. That same year, the United Nations voted for a resolution calling for the end of worldwide whaling, and the U.S. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Then, in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which had the Gray Whale on the list and where it would remain protected for the next two decades of its dramatic recovery. And during this same period, Gray Whales first made direct overtures to a Mexican fisherman.

Their decision to make contact with our species is but one of many mysteries surrounding the Gray Whale. Our second morning on the lagoon, not a single one would approach us. There was an east wind blowing against the tide, creating a slight chop on the water. Later, John Spencer would inform us that, at such times, the whales are apparently so aware of their capacity to inflict damage on a small craft, they remain in the near-distance. Instead they offered us a fascinating show we had not witnessed the previous day. They performed what’s known as “spy-hopping.” After a dive, the whale’s head emerges vertically and visibly out of the water. They are sometimes said to be standing on their tails. They remain, as if perched, for as long as half-a-minute. They appear to be scanning the horizon.

Science has no explanation for this manifestation. Nor for the breaching that Gray Whales and a few other whale species exhibit. I watched in awe as the Grays burst from the water, launching as much as three-quarters of their body skyward. They twist onto their back or side before plunging again into the sea. Sometimes they’ve been seen to repeat this over and over, breaching as many as forty times with about fifteen-second intervals in between leaps. Is this a display of power or exuberance? A signaling system? Some kind of courtship ritual? Or is it simply pleasurable to them? It’s anybody’s guess.

As the easiest to observe of any whale, the Gray has long been of special interest to zoologists. Between 1977 and 1984, Dr. Steven Swartz and his scientific colleague, Mary Lou Jones (later to become his wife), spent every winter at San Ignacio Lagoon. Their most memorable moments revolved around the relationship between mothers and calves, probably the most tender ever observed in a marine mammal. “While playing,” Jones and Swartz have written, “the little ones climb all over their resting mothers. They swim onto her rotund back and slide off, roll across her massive tail stock, and pummel her with their leaping back-flops and belly-flops. Mothers appear very tolerant of all this and frequently join in, repeatedly lifting the calf out of the water, whereupon the calf flails itself back down with a splash.”

Late February and into March, it’s time for “spring training” in preparation for the long migration. When the tides are running in the lower lagoon, the mothers match their speed to that of the strong incoming currents as they tread water. Alongside them, the calves gather strength by swimming as if on a treadmill. Sometimes, though, things don’t work out as they should. On one such occasion, Jones and Swartz witnessed a remarkable example of the lengths to which Gray Whales will go to protect their young. “From our observation tower on Punta Piedra next to a deep channel, we saw a calf thrashing as it left the channel and tried to cross a shallow sandbar. Instantly, an adult whale we took to be the calf’s mother surged out of the channel and beached itself beside the calf. Seconds later another whale beached itself on the other side, sandwiching the calf between two adults. Both adults thereupon raised their heads and flukes, pivoted with the calf between them, and slid smoothly back into the channel.” The following year, the two marine scientists saw the same thing happen a second time, in the same place.

The “spring training” period is also when mothers begin nudging their calves toward humans – an apparently learned pattern which scientists have observed in individual whales that return year after year. These approaches steadily increased during the six years that Jones and Swartz were at the lagoon. Only a few whales came to people in 1977 and 1978. Within five years after that, scientists had chronicled over two hundred such encounters.

Jones and Swartz nicknamed some of the whales after their distinctive colors and markings: Rosebud, Pinto, Cabrillo, Peanut. One large female was christened Amazing Grace. In the two biologists’ first encounter with her, “she readily adopted us along with our 14-foot inflatable outboard as her personal toys. She would roll under the boat, turn belly up with her flippers sticking three to four feet out of the water on either side of the craft, then lift us clear off the surface of the lagoon, perched high and dry on her chest between her massive flippers. When she tired of the bench-press technique, Grace would do the same thing with her head, lifting us out of the water and letting us slide off to swirl around her in circles, like a big rubber duck in the bathtub with a ten-ton playmate.”

Experiences like this must make mythologists out of marine mammalogists.


On the way out of San Ignacio Lagoon, we stopped again at the village where I’d run into John Spencer. He was just emerging from a backyard shower. We sat down alone inside the little house. He leaned forward and asked if I had come up with any thoughts as to why the whales here are the friendliest on the planet. I said I’d just be guessing. After a moment, John reached to a shelf behind him, lined mostly with foodstuffs, and handed me a bottle of wine with a Gray Whale on its label. “Read it,” he instructed.

I read aloud: “Whales Pinot Noir 1987 Idaho. San Ignacio Lagoon. Close Encounters of the First Kind. Whales possess the greatest living power on earth. Though driven to the brink of extinction, they choose to present only gentleness, tranquility and love. Through these qualities they enable humanity to visualize the possibility of world peace. When the whales are gone, there is no reason to go on living. John Spencer, 1987.”

He explained that he’d made the wine himself, giving numbered bottles to friends and family.

I described the inner stillness I’d felt when the whales made contact, as if there was some sort of psychic interchange happening.

John responded: “What you’re really saying is, it’s being humbled. You’re sitting there with something so magnificent, so close to God or whatever we have to deal with. If you don’t feel it then, you’re never gonna feel it. We’ve been asked to come into their house, and to share a moment with them. How can we be so blessed? And to be assured that nothing wrong will happen? You almost come to tears just thinking about it.”

He paused a moment, then gestured toward the lagoon beyond, and went on: “I feel so safe out there. Like maybe somebody’s got ahold of me. I remember one afternoon, must be quite a few years back now. Me and Luis, a guy I’d worked with for years, are dickin’ around out there when our boat motor craps out on us. We’re drifting. All of a sudden I look up and these three whales are right next to our boat. Mating! I’m sure we’re gonna get tipped over because during mating you always stand way off, like a hundred yards. They’re thrashing and you figure they don’t even know you’re there. Now these whale tails are sliding right by our little boat.

“Well, I look over the side, and damned if we aren’t on a reef! We’re in two feet of water and then it drops straight off. Our motor is all that’s holding us from going farther onto the reef. So there we are, safe and sound, three whales mating right beside us. And I’ve got no film in my camera!

“But I’ve often thought, well, we shouldn’t have been there anyway. You can’t capture a moment like that. It was about a thirty-minute situation. Unbelievable. Eyes. Everything. I love their eyes. Too beautiful.”

He stood up. “I’ll give you one clue about what’s really happening out there. The best clue anybody’s ever gonna give you – short of being with the guys that live with them. Not all those whales come over and play with you, right? Why do some, but not others, swim right up to your boat?”

I couldn’t answer him. He said, “You think about this for a couple weeks, you’ll figure it out,” and extended a hand. “Now don’t get too close to any gulleys on your way out.”

All the way back to the town of San Ignacio, I mused about the experience. Visions flooded my consciousness from other soul-rending moments in my life: Sleeping at the feet of the Sphinx and climbing the Great Pyramid at dawn. Camping at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Venturing down into Tanzania’s wildlife-filled Ngorongoro Crater. This lagoon journey, as with so many of the most memorable times, was marked by an initiation. Had we not broken down in a potentially perilous situation, we might never have met John Spencer. Nor would I have been introduced to Pachico.

In the town square, I stopped by the Kuyima camp offices to visit with the English-speaking director, Carlos’s brother, Josele Varela. As I prepared to depart, reticently I asked a question my wife had urged me to raise.

“Do you know Pachico Mayoral?”

Josele nodded.

I asked, “Do you think it’s possible that Pachico somehow taught the gray whales to interact with people?”

Josele looked at me for a long moment. “Well,” he said finally, “that is the legend.”

I thought again of the stillness I had felt on the lagoon, and in the presence of Pachico. I thought of the sweetness of the air, the purity of the wilderness, the busy winging of cormorants above the spouting of the whales.

But it was not ever thus. Here, too, and not so very long ago, the sands had flowed crimson.