The whales of San Ignacio
The gray whale was once known as the devil fish. Hunters would harpoon the young off the Baja Sur coast and entice the large mother to the boat, and then kill her. Enraged, these 35 foot 100 ton creatures would purposefully throw themselves out of the water, often knocking over the small boats, and sometimes causing bodily harm to the whalers. I remember being fascinated by the these horrific depictions as a child – of a boat crushed in two, harpoons protruding from a whales back, and the screams of the sailors echoed in the picture. I also remember feeling the whalers got their just rewards. I rarely sympathized with humans.
Now I understand that it was a livelihood, and although I don’t like how it was done, I know now this was a commercial enterprise, which allowed communities to thrive and develop. However, this is no longer the case, which is why I support the Whaleman Foundation and its founder Jeff Pantukoff, whose mission is to promote a better understanding of the oceans and these gentle creatures.
Forward 100 years or so, one of these same “Devil fish” who threatened the fisherman, decided to rub up on a small fishing boat, much to the local fisherman’s horror. When the whale spy hopped to regard him, he did what no one had done before – reached out. The whale rubbed up against his hand. It was the first “friendly encounter” in a large bay called St. Ignacio Sur, now a UN World Heritage Site, and whale sanctuary.
Now, the local population has capitalized on the friendly gray whale who travels down from Alaska for the months of Feb-April to mate, give birth, and interact with tourists willing to pay for this once in a lifetime experience. This year, I somehow managed a week off from our new clinic (Dr. Cote was kindly willing to cover all the hours in our burgeoning enterprise!) and went down to San Diego with my daughter and husband, where we were shipped to Tijuana and took a small plane down to a tiny airport. We were greeted by a most ebullient Sextos, our local guide, who brought us to the rustic camp, where we would take daily excursions to see the whales. Jeff was already out on a morning excursion- and we were initiated into the camp rituals- there is only solar powered lights, 2 outhouses, water is limited (this is the desert), and heated by solar panels- and the shower is a “bucket shower”. However, the beds in the cabanas were comfortable and very clean, and the Palapa where we all gathered for food and discussions, comfy and spacious.
We were not there for the comfort, but there for the whales. And whales we did see. Every day, our little boat (panga) would go out for 2 hours (they time the captains strictly, so there are only a limited number of boats out at any one time), and as you looked around, you realized the “whoosh” you were hearing were whales to the right, whales to the left. We were essentially in whale soup! After some time, a mother and calf would approach the boat. To get their attention, we would splash water over them, and when they wanted to, they would come in for a “pet”. Often mom would just drop below the boat and the baby would roll around on the surface, allowing all the humans who are cooing and making silly noises, to scratch and rub their barnacled skin. After some time, maybe an hour or so, they would leave. Then we would watch mating in the distance, where the female is buoyed to the surface by a male, and if you were lucky (?) we would get a view of the “Pink Floyd”. I desperately tried to get a photo of one of these for my reproduction class!
It all seemed to end so quickly. We were returned back to our daily lives with pictures and memories. But I take a little time when I am stressed or flustered by my daily routine to let my mind rest, and listen…listen for the sound of a whale taking a breath.
Please go to Jeffs website – whaleman.org if you want to support this organization, or go on one of these adventures. His foundation is a grass route one, and every bit of funding goes to helping marine mammals directly.