For reasons I don't know, we humans have an urge to pet animals. This might at least partly explain why I recently found myself petting a whale.
Petting a whale isn't something one does on a whim. For one thing, whales rarely swim right up to a boat. But in San Ignacio Lagoon, the primary place on the Pacific side of Baja California where Eastern Pacific gray whales go to mate and give birth, the whales make an exception. In this protected lagoon, they've become so friendly to humans, they often swim over to people as if asking to be touched.
Since 1988, the San Ignacio Lagoon has been part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest wildlife sanctuary in Latin America. In 1993, the United Nations declared the lagoon a World Heritage Site. The Mexican government protects this lagoon as if it were a national treasure.
Getting there isn't easy. I went upon the invitation of my friend Rod Arno, who lives in Wasilla, but tells people he lives in Palmer so they won't ask him about Sarah Palin. Rod and his wife have a winter getaway place near Loreto, about two-thirds of the way down the Baja on the Sea of Cortez side. Loreto, which is served by Alaska Airlines, is a little more than 200 miles by highway from San Ignacio Lagoon.
Back to the whales, most gray whales summer in the Bering and Chukchi seas, off Alaska. Hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s, they now number about 20,000. Swimming at an average speed of 5 miles per hour and making about 75 miles per day, they are commonly seen along the coast between Baja and Alaska.
At this point, you might be wondering why an Alaskan would journey 4,000 miles to Mexico to see whales when he can see them without leaving home. When I asked Rod this question, he said, "Because I want to pet one."
I could tell you the travails of our trip, how Alaska Airlines switched gates on us coming and going, causing much extra walking and gnashing of teeth, but I'll spare you that. Suffice it to say that after changes of aircraft in Seattle and Los Angeles, we landed in Loreto and cleared customs just 12 hours after we left Anchorage.
You can reach San Ignacio Lagoon by several methods, including bus and small aircraft. We used Rod's Ford pickup, which he stores near the airport when he's not in Loreto. The 207-mile road trip from Loreto to San Ignacio was mainly on paved, two-lane road, with gravel for only the last 20 miles. The Mexican government is rapidly improving access to tourist attractions, and this road should be fully paved soon.
Upon arrival at the lagoon, we were warmly greeted by the staff of Ecoturismo Kuyima and shown to a cozy cabana on the beach. After a welcome Margarita, we were served a meal of local seafood in the camp dining room. I could go on and on about the great food, the friendly staff, the warm air, the golden silence, the exotic scenery and wildlife. But that stuff was only frosting. The cake came the next day.
After breakfast the next morning, Rod and I, along with two ladies from San Francisco, boarded a 25-foot panga for the brief trip to the whale-watching zone. Camp manager Carlos Varela, who had already told us much about the area and whales, came along as our guide. The weather was perfect -- sunny skies, warm and flat water.
The number of boats allowed in the whale-watching zone of the lagoon is limited and carefully monitored, so I wondered if we'd have to wait in line to get in. However, U.S. economic problems, coupled with concern about Mexican drug cartels, has greatly reduced the number of tourists in Mexico, so we had no delay in entering the zone. Twenty minutes after we stepped onto the boat, we were not just seeing whales, but were surrounded by them.
We weren't counting, but we likely saw 40 individual whales in the two hours we were out there. We saw whales resting, just lying still in the water and occasionally blowing. We saw whales in what Carlos referred to as "mating behavior." We saw mother whales teaching their babies the ropes. We saw whales spy hopping, sounding and breaching close enough to "fill the frame" without a telephoto lens. But the most exciting thing was when the whale swam right up to the boat.
It was twice as long as our boat and probably weighed 40 tons. Slowly and majestically, it moved toward us, stopping with its nose just below the surface, one eye seemingly looking right at us.
"Go ahead and touch it," Carlos said.
It lay there motionless, while all of us leaned over and touched it. Then it slowly moved away, hardly leaving a swirl in its passage.
At that moment, I knew why we had made that long, expensive trip. There was something about touching that whale that made it all worthwhile.
Les Palmer lives in Sterling.
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