A quiet reconciliation with the whale

Tiptoeing through the giants’ Baja nursery
fosters awe and an improbable bond.

The moment the rose-colored peaks of the Sierra Santa Clara mountains come into view from the highway, I envision the phenomenon they embrace: the sanctuary of the gray whales. It is the end of March, three years since my last visit. This time, it is late in their birthing season, on the cusp of their beginning the 5,000-mile-long migration back to the Arctic summer feeding grounds. We are uncertain how many whales will remain; 37 miles of bone-jarring, washboard dirt road yet stand between us and the lagoon.

Beyond flat-topped clay cliffs that overlook the desert forests of tall cardon cactus and thick-trunked elephant trees, the shimmer of tidal salt flats beckons entry into the realm of las amistosas — the friendly ones.

We arrive in two carloads at Campo Cortez, one of several whale-watching camps along the lagoon. After lunch we start hiking with half a dozen other visitors along a quarter-mile path that follows a pillow-lava rock jetty leading to the lagoon. Beyond the pickleweed plants and sand verbena with its magenta-colored flowers, Maldo Fischer and his son Paco wait just offshore in two 26-foot-long metal pangas. A flock of black brant geese soars overhead, as our guides drive the boats high enough onto the craggy shore for us to climb aboard without getting wet.

A quarter of an hour passes before we round a small peninsula approaching the mouth of the lagoon, where it empties into the Pacific. This 5-mile-wide channel is the designated area for whale watching. (No visitors are allowed in the nursery deeper inside the lagoon.) Mexican regulations permit only 15 pangas here at any one time; none are allowed to approach the whales. The boats can only pause, engines in idle, while the choice of making contact is up to the grays. We are told that, of the 800 or so who were here a month ago, perhaps 100 mothers and their calves are still around.

As we enter the channel, the first visible whale sign is a “spy hop,” a vertical thrust jabbing skyward out of the depths, remaining stationary long enough — or so one imagines — to assess our presence. Now a pair of whales are spotted, lolling on the surface: the mother’s barnacle-crusted forehead glistening in the sun, the calf emitting a heart-shaped geyser from its twin blowholes. The whales hold steady not far away, but make no move in our direction. As the young one disappears underwater, the fluke waves at us.

It is impossible not to think this way, not to turn these grand creatures into something familiar. Especially after you first meet. Their sudden rush toward the panga takes your breath away. Alongside us now, a 30-ton mother nudges her already 2-ton newborn toward a matchstick-craft that could capsize in an instant. Yet the heart’s pounding is not from apprehension; no, rather from a sense of wonderment rarely experienced, and in Laguna San Ignacio, that never grows old.

The mother bears a large white patch on her left side, near the knuckles that ridge her back. Her marbled body, all spots and barnacles, indicates she is an older whale. The baby lifts its head into the sauna-like spray that cools the outboard engine, then accompanies mom from stern to bow and back again, leaning into our touch, opening its mouth wide for a baleen massage. Many times are we baptized with whale-spray. At last, two of our passengers plant simultaneous kisses on the baby’s rubbery nose.

Among our party is Phila Dunlap, at 85 certainly one of the oldest ever to make this pilgrimage. Back at camp, sitting outside her tent, she tells my wife: “I must sit here and wrap my mind around what I have been through.” Later, Phila would speak of having been around wild animals all her life, of having “talked” to her horses. “But this really is like your pet dogs coming to greet you — exuberance is the word!”

There is, too, a fragility here, a vulnerability you feel during a fitful night’s sleep, tossing on your cot as the wind batters the tent. Five years ago, this last pristine habitat of the grays had been poised for the development of a sprawling saltworks; the same saline buoyancy that makes the lagoon ideal for giving birth is equally enticing to titans of industry. A spirited campaign by Mexican and American environmental groups ultimately scuttled the project, but recent talk of its revival brings realization that vigilance — not victory — is all that can ever really be declared.

Dawn breaks to brown pelicans diving for prey. As we head out again, there are a number of whale pairs lined up facing the lagoon’s mouth, as if holding a pre-migratory classroom. Their exhalations form wispy, whispering rainbows across the aquamarine waters. For a long time, no visitations. Then a baby whale finally surges through the waves, mother nowhere in sight. She turns over to show us her creamy-white belly, one silver-gray eye riveted upon us. She rises to be stroked and kissed, voraciously friendly, all but leaping into the boat with us. The half-hour she lingers overturns time and space.

There is more. Always more. A young whale cavorting with two bottlenosed dolphins, rolling and leapfrogging over one another, a game that all appear to enjoy. A huge acrobat balancing the calf on its back, “presenting her child” until the nose is perched eye-level with ours.

Why they have chosen to approach human beings here with increasing frequency over the last generation, no one knows. In the mid-1900s, whalers had slaughtered their ancestors by the thousands in this same lagoon, labeling them “devilfish” for their propensity to fight back by overturning small boats.

The pangas that today propel us among them are the same size as those whaleboats. Yet now the grays come beseeching the outstretched hands of people whose forbears once thrust harpoons.

Their forgiveness, indeed their love, is surely one of the planet’s profound mysteries.

The mind grasps at straws of explanation. When the gray whales arch their tails and vanish beneath the waves, it is as though they have disappeared into my heart. Their all-penetrating gaze is what remains when I close my eyes.