Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Whale of a Tale!

Ironically, the day began shortly after I woke up to find that the water was off in my house - although uncommon, not an unprecedented event, made somewhat more awkward due to the fact that I have had houseguests for the past couple of weeks.  But we managed to make a pot of coffee from the chilled water in the fridge and have a quick breakfast before getting in the car and hitting the road by 8:30 in the morning.

Our destination was Lopez Mateo, a small fishing port on the west side of the peninsula about 150 km south and west of Loreto, which is located on Magdalena Bay, a 50 km long narrow stretch of protected water separating the coast from the Pacific by a long narrow barrier island.  These protected waters are a breeding ground for the Grey Whales, and later a nursery for the newborn babies, where they are given birth, and spend their first few months growing in size and strength, under the watchful care of their mothers, until they are ready for the long trip north to Alaska, where they spend the summers feeding.

It has been a number of years since my last trip to Lopez Mateo to watch the whales, ( but it was on my visiting Guest's "bucket list" for their trip to Loreto, and so I was looking forward to the road trip and a day spent experiencing one of the iconic activities that people come from all over the world to share.  Yet, as someone who lives here most of the year, it took my friend's visit to break my routine and make it happen, becoming a tourist where you live is one of the gifts Visitors bring with them!

Under normal circumstances the drive would be straight forward, south from Loreto Bay on Highway #1 about 100 km to the intersection where it continues further south to the next major town of Constitution, but we would be turning north through the hamlet of Insurgentes, and then about another 35 km west to the coast.  However, just south of Loreto Bay, work has begun on widening the two lane road where it starts to climb into the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains and traffic has to stop periodically to allow the workers to proceed, making travel times unpredictable. 

I wanted to get a good start on the day, in case we were held up by the construction, so we would still arrive
at our destination by mid-morning and be ahead of the crowds and tours coming from La Paz and other places further south.  With lucky timing, we were only held up for about 10 minutes that morning, for the roadwork just south of Loreto Bay, and then continued on without out interruption, although we passed through several detours along the way where we were diverted off the highway to rough temporary lanes, while the main road was being prepared for widening.

(This project to twin the Highway in this part of the Baja is a major undertaking that will take years to complete, and millions of dollars of scarce infrastructure money, but has the potential to make the biggest impact to access and travel in the Baja since the advent of the original two lane paved road that opened the peninsula to vehicles 40 years ago.)

After leaving the main Highway, we made a brief "pit stop" at the Lay Express supermarket in Insurgentes
and then continued through town and made the quick left turn onto the Lopez Mateo road, arriving in the fishing village at a respectable 10:30.  There were not many cars yet in the Port area's surprisingly large parking lot as we made our way towards a row of whale watching tour booths that lined the far side of the lot.  I went to the largest of these, "Aquendi" which is a local co-operative of fishermen who are organized to provide whale watching tours from the port for the couple of months that the whales are in these calm protected waters.  A lucrative alternative to their regular fishing work that takes place the rest of the year.

A fluently bilingual "front man" greeted us as we approached the booth and he went on to explain that the boats were for hire at 900 pesos per hour for up to 8 passengers and they recommended 2 or 3 hour excursion.  The three of us could hire our own boat, or wait for more people to arrive and put together a larger group and share the cost further.  While we were discussing this, I overheard a returning passenger exclaiming enthusiastically about how his trip today was even better than the one he had been on the day before, good news, as up to that point I was unsure how active the whales would be this late into the Season that had started earlier than usual in late January.

As we were deciding how long to take a boat out and whether to wait for more passengers, another couple approached the booth and we soon decided to make up a group with them and hire the boat for two hours at a cost of 1800 pesos (about $140 US) divided five ways.  After signing in at the desk we were issued with life jackets and headed through a small cluster of souvenir stands to the dock where about two dozen "pangas" were tethered waiting for passengers.  Soon we were comfortably settled aboard a clean, well maintained boat, outfitted specifically for passengers with 6 padded benches and Marco, our young Skipper handling the late model Honda 90 horsepower outboard.

When we left the port we headed across the channel to the barrier island that runs parallel to the coast and is basically a sand spit about 3 km across, separating the calm waters we were in from the much rougher Pacific shoreline to the west.  These sand dunes looked like classic desert, except for the fact they were surrounded on both sides by water, and soon we were cruising beside mangroves filled with seabirds, mainly frigates with the odd herons and pelicans and sprinkling of gulls.  After a brief "photo op" for the birds, we headed further north to a break in the offshore island, where we could see the choppy whitecaps of the Pacific in the distance, but still were somewhat protected from the rough water by a reef.

This was the place that this spring's babies were "conditioned" by the mother whales to build their stamina for the long swim from here north to Alaska, and it was where the last of this Season's specimens were to be found.  As we approached this open water, there were three or four other pangas in the distance and we joined them, watching the surrounding water for signs of the whales we had come to see.  Within 15 minutes or so our observations were rewarded with the first "hump" being spotted rising out of the water 50 yards or so distant.  As we and the other boats slowly converged in the general area, soon we were seeing more and more activity with pairs of massive backs (mother and baby) rising side by side, exhaling plumes of spray and then disappearing - sometimes reappearing again a few hundred yards away.

What followed in the next half to three quarters of an hour was one of the most memorable experiences I
have had living in the Baja!  On my previous trips to see these whales the sightings were fewer and further away, but this time was different - our three or four small boats were essentially surrounded by successive pairs of mothers and babies coming close enough to gently nudge our boat as they slowly passed beside and under us.  More to the point, we were able to reach over the sides of the boats and touch these massive creatures, that were apparently getting as much pleasure from our touch as we were from the incredible experience of being that close to one of the largest mammals on earth!

So, what does a whale feel like?  Imagine an underinflated rubber inner tube, with skin that felt like the surface of a wetsuit - but unexpectedly warm to the touch, not at all like the feel of a cold blooded fish in the water.  The experience went on over a dozen or more of these encounters that usually started with an area of calmer water appearing amidst the choppy waves, then the water changed color from blue/green to grey/white as their backs slowly rose to the surface and their spine broke through.  This was usually followed by them venting through their blowholes a noisy spray of fine mist and then easing back into the waves and disappearing again.

But on this special day, these mother/baby pairs often lingered on the surface, while our expert panga 
Skippers deftly maneuvered their 20+ ft. boats back and forth in a careful dance, giving both us and the whales repeated opportunities for magical moments of contact.  While I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, it was clear to all who were sharing this experience that the whales too appeared to be enjoying "playing" among the boats, gently rubbing up against them, perhaps scratching an itchy back, before nuzzling their softly pointed nose up against the boat to be touched briefly by our reaching hands.  Sometimes as they rolled and frolicked we would literally be eye to eye with these 50 foot mammoths as they were "watching" us, as we bounced around on the surface catching our glimpses of them.

My words cannot come close to communicating the impact of that hour or so of cross species contact, my previous visits paled by comparison, and I now share the enthusiasm I had previously thought exaggerated by others who had had similarly close encounters.  So I have included a few brief clips below (courtesy of my Guest Steve) of one of the many of these moments we experienced and hope you can share in some of the magic of these encounters.  Finding a unexpected new level of experience, that will stay with me as a memory for years, while sharing a popular "tourist" experience with visiting friends is one more way I am thankful for "Living Loreto"!