Friendly Whales of San Ignacio
By Paula Mc Donald
The morning sun shimmers on a
sheltered inlet halfway down the Pacific coast
of Mexico's Baja California. I climbed into
a small wooden skiff. Beside me a 12-year-old
granddaughter, Rhiannon. I've invited her along
to see for herself the mystery of Laguna San
guide, a local fisherman, starts his ancient
outboard motor and pushes off into the lagoon.
We chug along for about half-mile, peering into
the glistening waters. Suddenly, a huge head
with an eye the size of a softball surfaces
within inches of the skiff. In a moment, 80,000
pounds of gray whale, three times the length
of our boat, hovers motionless next to us.
a second no one breaths. THen Rhiannon and I
reach out and caress the huge creature's scarred,
rubbery face. Between clusters of barnacles,
the skin is smooth, slick and pleasant to the
touch. When we rub the surface, it gives a bit,
like a wet inner tube.
stroke the skin and the lips---inside and out.
Kneeling in the bottom of the boat, we lay or
cheeks against the whale's cheek. Then the 45-foot
giant arises to face us head on, and we lean
forward and kiss her. Rhiannon is so intensely
involved that she almost crawls over the side
of the boat onto the whale's head. Our guide
grabs the back of her life jacket and holds
away, the whale splashes and churns, turning
exuberant side rolls. huge flippers foaming
up white water. Then she returns for another
petting with a delicacy of movement that seems
impossible in such a massive animal. Finally,
exhilarated and exhausted, we go back to shore.
evening, in a thatch-roofed hut on the edge
of the lagoon, I sit with Jose Francisco Mayoral,
the first person to experience a close encounter
of this kind with the wild California gray whale.
The fisherman pushes back his baseball cap and
the sun-etched crevices of his face deepen with
concentration as he remembers the day.
was one early morning in February, 1972, when
Mayoral and his partner Santa Luis Perez set
out to fish in the Lagoon San Ignacio. Hundreds
of gray whales were swimming in three-mile-long,
one-mile-wide inlet. This was usual between
December and April, for the whales breed and
calve in the protected inlets of Baja, final
destination of their annual 6,000-mile migration
from the Arctic. Mayoral and Perez stayed as
far as possible from the spouting creatures
because the whales were said to smash boats
with their powerful flukes. Mayoral, who had
16 years' experience at sea, knew of one who
had been close to a healthy gray and lived.
Mayoral rowed to catch the outgoing tide, he
saw, straight ahead, a whale approaching. Heart
pounding, the wiry 31-year-old turned the boat
around and pulled hard for shore. Try as he
might, however, he could not out row the huge
beast. In moments, it overtook them. Expecting
the worst, the fisherman dropped to their knees
and made the sign of the cross. The whale raised
the its nine-foot head out of the water and
looked at them. Then, remarkably, it began to
rub gently against the boat.
and resurfacing on opposite sides of the boat,
the whale continued its gentle nuzzling for
almost an hour. At first the men prayed, frozen
in fear. But gradually, Mayoral's terror gave
way to curiosity. He was tempted to reach out
and touch this oddly unthreatening monster,
but a lifetime of caution kept him still.
last, finished with whatever its purpose had
been, the whale disappeared below the surface.
Some time passed before either man spoke. Then
they headed home. To his wife, Mayoral said
only, "No fish today."
word spread through the cluster of small wooden
shacks edging the lagoon. A miracle of sorts
had happened; one of the whales had tried to
touch the men, and the men had returned home
nights to come, by flickering kerosene lamps,
Mayoral and Perez told the story. They and other
fisherman struggled to understand. What did
the whale want?
Mellennia, California gray whales had wintered
in Baja's isolated lagoon's un bothered by natural
enemies. Then, in 1845, two whalers sailed into
Baja's Magdalena Bay and discovered that it
was breeding sanctuary for the migrating whales.
grays, however, were not easy prey. Protective
females were demonic defenders of their newborns,
charging whaling boats and injuring or killing
crew members. Whalers had dangerous encounters
with other types of whales, but the grays were
the only ones they called Devil Fish.
Yankee whaler, Captain Charles Scammon, recounted
in his 1856 Magdalena Bay journal another captain's
experience, "We were chasing a cow and
a calf when the boat-steerer sung out: 'Cap'n,
I've killed the calf, and the old cow is after
us!' I sung out to the men to pull for the shore
if they loved their lives; and when the boat
struck the beach, I told all the hands to climb
the end, the grays were no match for their hunters.
The whalers blocked the Baja's lagoons and turned
them into giant traps. What followed was methodical
slaughter that made the once-quiet sanctuaries
run red with blood of dying whales. Their carcasses
were floated to the beach, and blubber was boiled
on the spot for oil. Whale bone and baleen were
hauled aboard ships to be sold for corset stays,
brushes, and umbrella spokes. As petroleum eventually
replaced whale oil as fuel, the grays were killed
primarily to be sold as pet food.
1946, when international agreements finally
protected the California grays against commercial
whaling, it was estimated as few as 500 of the
magnificent, mammals remained.
the following decades, Baja's lagoons became
refuges once more. The only humans who shared
the whales' quiet breeding grounds were fisherman
in small boats. The gray whale population rebounded
to 24,000 animals - almost as many as there
were before the commercial whalers arrived.
Subsequently, in June 1994, the California gray
whale became the first marine mammal to be removed
from the U.S. list of endangered species.
isolated is Laguna San Ignacio - even today,
it is without telephones, electricity or running
water - that word of Jose Francisco Mayoral's
strange encounter did not reach the outside
world. Then in February, 1976, the Salado,
a whale watching excursion boat from San Diego,
anchored in Laguna San Ignacio. A 30-foot adolescent
whale approached and began playing with the
rubber dinghies tethered off its stern. The
captain and others climbed into the dinghies
for a closer look. Finally, they dared to pat
the seven-ton youngster. The following day,
it returned for more. For the next month it
continued making contact.
fantastic news brought scientists flocking.
During the next five years, encounters with
the friendly whales increased dramatically.
Each year more scientists were on the water
and more whales would approach. Gradually, the
fisherman who initially thought the scientist
were crazy, came to be the more frequent acquaintances
of the giants they had feared for so long. The
special group of gray whales that consistently
sought out human contact came t be known as
"the friendlies". Many with distinct
personalities were given names - Margie, Scarback,
Mancha, Bopper and Amazing Grace.
favorite in the five days we visited was a calf
we called Brincadora - " "Bouncy"
in Spanish. Brincadora didn't swim, she soared
with her back arched like a dolphin, bouncing
over the waves as if catapulted by an undersea
trampoline. Whenever her mother breached majestically
out of the water, the little whale would try
too and end with a splat and a belly flop.
time Rhiannon and I took to the water, we were
surrounded by whales of every size and age-spouting,
sleeping, mating and spying on the humans. One
by one, the friendlies would come close to be
touched and stroked. Patiently, by example,
mothers taught shy newborns to come directly
to our outstretched hands. Other older calves
sometimes out swam their mothers to reach us.
of the friendlies actually picked up the wooden
boat and carried us a bit on her back. We whopped
and cheered with excitement. Another whale pushed
her head under the prow of a nearby boat and
slowly twirled it in circles.
Woodworth and Karen Baker, managers of Baja
Discovery Whale Camp, which was provides whale
watching excursions, witnessed a startling incident
three years ago. Tanner Woodcock, an eight-year-old
Montana boy, stuck his arm into a whale's mouth
and rubbed its sensitive tongue and gums. The
creature closed its mouth and tugged on Tanner's
arm but released it, unharmed, a few seconds
travelers, science museums and wildlife groups
have organized trips to visit Laguna San Ignacio.
Contact with the whales is governed by strict
rules. With few exceptions, local fisherman
are the only ones the mexican government allows
to put boats on the lagoon. Many of them serve
as guides during the winter whales season. Special
areas in the northern half of the lagoon are
off-limits to all except the whales and their
calves. Rules are enforced by onshore government
observers with high-powered telescopes - and
by the fisherman.
are the whales approaching us? What do they
Sumich, a San Diego-based expert on the migratory
patterns of gray whales, notes that except for
whalers, peoples have avoided these great animals
throughout history. Perhaps the notoriously
curious creatures might have made contact long
ago, had we allow it.
agree that all cetaceans - dolphins, toothed
whales and baleen whales - are highly sensitive
to touch. Perhaps the whales' initial curiosity
about people we rewarded by the pleasurable
sensation of being stroked, and this sparked
that what the whales are getting out of this?
A good scratch, nothing more? When asked, fisherman
who spend their days whales have another answer:
they like us.
is more than touch," Mayoral says with
quiet conviction. Jose' Angel Sanchez, a marine
biologist for Mexico's National Institute of
Ecology agrees. He believes the grays are curious
and intelligent, with delightful sense of play.
Baby whales will often push their sleeping mothers
around the lagoons. So why wouldn't they have
intelligence - and gentleness - to twirl our
boats like bathtub toys? That's what Bruce Mate,
director of the Endowed Marine Mammal Research
program at Oregon State University, suggests.
of the who is right, we seem to have crossed
a frontier with another species, another world.
And, remarkably, the contact was initiated not
by us, but by the whales.
reprinted with the permission of Readers Digest.