Copyright 2002 AXIS Performance Advisors
by Darcy Hitchcock
NOTE: Occasionally, we publish a special edition of the AXIS Advisory, something more personal than the usual fare of business-oriented articles. I wanted to share with you a thrilling experience I had recently on a whale watching trip in Baja, so that’s the focus of this Special Edition. –Darcy
Seven of us sat anxiously on cushions in the small Mexican panga,it’s small outboard idling quietly, rocking in the windswept waves of Laguna San Ignacio. It didn’t matter which direction we looked, for the bay was thick with gray whales which had come here to calve. Spouts could be seen in every direction, the atomization of seawater on top of their blow holes when they exhaled at 120 miles per hour.
“Spy hop at two o’clock,” someone shouted, pointing. We all turned to watch a massive head slowly descend back into the water. The panga driver motored closer to an amorous encounter, a thrashing, splashing menage a trois. We watched in rapt attention as their massive bodies, longer than our panga, spun and caressed. This dramatic display would have satisfied most whale watchers, but we had come for a more mystical experience, a chance to pet a wild gray whale.
As we slopped about under the intense sun, I thought about the captain’s warning. “This isn’t a Disneyland ride. It’s entirely on their terms.”Three-quarters of the lagoon is off-limits to boats during the calving season,so the whales have no trouble avoiding human contact. But, inexplicably,some “friendlies” seek out the pangas to interact with humans.
These are the “devil fish,” the same whales so feared by whalers,for they routinely rammed boats, smashing vessels with their powerful flukes,killing and maiming men. To the amazement of biologists who thought these animals lived 50-75 years, some whales have been found with well-documented,200-year-old harpoon points in their blubber. We almost drove the gray whales to extinction twice in the last 150 years. So it is possible that some of these whales remember our wanton slaughter. And yet, some gently approach the pangas for nothing more than the mutual thrill of interacting with and touching another species.
A huge cow approached the boat, her back as broad as a car. “Come on, Mamma!” someone shouted, hoping she would visit us. Instead, her huge frame glided under the boat in an apparent attempt to avoid a suitor,and then she was gone. Again, we sat quietly, expectantly, hopefully.
The population of gray whales is one of the few wonderful conservation success stories. They have come back in large numbers in the Pacific. Instead of harpoons, they are now mostly at risk from global warming (warmer oceans affect their food supply) and the persistent, bioaccumulative toxins that they absorb into their bodies. Even though they eat low on the food chain,filtering plankton through their baleen, their long lives put themselves at risk from our society’s toxic waste. But they are doing better than the orcas. According to the naturalist on board, killer whales routinely kill their first born from the toxins in their breast milk. Humans too have alarming quantities of these manmade chemicals in our bodies as well, but not yet to such tragic proportions.
The friendly behavior was first noticed in the mid 1970’s when a cow approached a set of skiffs tied off the back of a larger vessel. As she nudged the small boats, the crew wondered if she meant them harm. The biologist on board decided to crawl into the skiff to get close to the whale and his interaction with her left him in tears, changing his life forever. From one friendly whale in the first year, two the next, now biologists estimate that perhaps 10% of the whales in the bay are now ‘friendlies.’
ShhPooo! As we idled, a cow/calf pair came up behind us. “Come Onnnn, BA-BEEEEE!” a woman strained. The panga listed as we all leaned over the left side, slapping the water with our hands. The mother brought her small calf, perhaps only 2-3 weeks old, past the panga, positioning the baby between herself and the boat. But afraid of our ruckus, the baby slipped over his mother’s back, away from our reach. The mother came by two more times, apparently habituating the calf to human contact.
As the water slapped against the side of our boat, I tried to imagine why a mother would do this. Why expose your precious newborn to a species which almost drove your kind to extinction? We aren’t feeding the whales,so what is the payback? It would seem the risks would outweigh the benefits.
Without warning, a huge cow approached the side of our boat, rising out of the water so close that her spout showered us, splattering camera lenses.She then sank to about ten feet beneath the surface, lying still, perpendicular to the panga, watching. As we splashed the water, her baby approached on the surface, coming closer. We all reached out as far as we could, hoping to touch it. Then it happened. The baby poked his nose above water right next to the panga. Eager hands reached out to rub his slick, rubbery skin,like silken tofu but more turgid. He went down and twirled under water,coming up again, this time turning somewhat on his side so we could stroke the side of his face, his mouth, the spiky whiskers. We were all shouting,cooing, as the boat listed precariously.
Under he went, as mom and baby slipped in slow motion under the boat.Mom unloaded a lung-full of air directly under the boat, giving us a natural Jacuzzi. We rushed to the other side as they swung around to approach from the other side. This time, the mother presented her face for pets, crusted with white barnacles and orange whale lice. Again she sank down to her observation post as the baby played with us.
Noticing the activity, several other pangas approached. After 10-15 minutes of play, our driver suggested we let another group have a chance. So, as we slipped backward, people in another panga slapped the water until the baby approached their boat. And so, for at least an hour, this mother and baby went boat to boat, as if trick or treating, playing with humans.
Is this behavior just for the tactile pleasure of skin-to-skin contact? Is it a way to entertain or wear out the calf? Is it motherly pride, showing off her infant? Or is it an attempt to communicate with us?
One story may hold a clue to the whales’ motivation. A number of years ago, a Mexican panga was harassing a cow/calf pair, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While the other pangas tried to dissuade them over their walkie talkies, the boat persisted. Finally, the cow parked her baby next to the large tour boat and went back after the harassing panga. She slapped her tail menacingly at them and then went back to recover her baby. On another occasion, a cow left her baby beside the tour boat for two hours as she went off on her own, presumably to feed. So perhaps we’re in training to become cetacean daycare workers. I’m honored.
Whatever the whales’ intentions, the effect on the 500 or so humans each year who are privileged to have this interaction is profound. To look into their gentle eyes, to witness their joy of contact, to watch their powerfulgrace has touched us all deeply.
Their gift of forgiveness, however, carries an obligation. Hats off to the Mexican government for closely controlling this lagoon and for denying Mitsubishi’s plans to build a huge desalinization plant there. But with the rising population of gray whales has come pressure to resume whaling.And the toxic chemicals of our society are slowly poisoning them and other precious species. To live up to the trust these whales exhibit toward us,we still have a lot of work to do. But through educational eco-vacations like these, people are reconnecting with nature, something that gives me hope.
If you’re interested in the trip I took,go to www.bajawhale.com