When I began writing the first draft of this article, I was just ten minutes into the flight home. Eager to get my thoughts down, I started writing on my smartphone. The irony of using the most ubiquitous piece of technology in the world to extoll the virtues of such a simple and pristine place was lost on me at the time. Rereading it though has rekindled powerful feelings, the kind I had hoped to be able to inspire with the finished work. Though it may be imperfect and raw I feel that keeping some of those once fresh words intact will help breathe life into this simple article.
As I write the opening to this piece, I am just under ten minutes into the flight home. With just over two hours left until I am back in "civilization" I am left with plenty of time to reflect on the life changing experiences I have had in the last four days.
The first day of travel started in the realm of familiarity. Transportation delays (due to weather) and the associated discomforts are nothing new. But at the conclusion of the flight to San Ignacio I stepped off of the small plane on the modest airstrip and directly into another world. A living and vibrant ecosystem that was also the winter paradise of the Gray Whale.
I grew up in a very small town in rural Iowa but nothing as modest or as remote as the campsite I was now travelling to. The untrained eye would have perceived the area as desolate, but a closer look would reveal life thriving despite a dry and unforgiving climate. Coyotes, lizards, and numerous birds were all around us quickly. Dolphins and sea turtles patrolled the shallow waters close to the rocky beaches of the campsite while vultures fed on what remained of a deceased sea lion. Dr. Ian Malcom would have been proud (bonus points if you get the reference). What towns we did pass by on our way to the campsite were small, and incredibly different from what were are used to in the United States.
Given our remote location, I felt the amenities at the campsite were luxurious. It is amazing how standards change when the surrounding context is altered from what we are used to. The campsite I was privileged to stay at boasted fixed building cabanas (less than a hundred square foot or so) with beds raised off the floor (barely long enough for my six foot tall frame) as well as linens (fresh, clean, and awesome by any standard if you ask me).
The palapa served as the gathering place for the camp. It is where meals were shared, where formal presentations were made, where passengers gathered before whale watches, and where stories were shared in the final hour of lamplight before the power was shut down for the evening. It was there where I made most of my social interactions with folks from all around the world, especially with the locals who worked at the camp. Upon our arrival we were greeted with fresh food and beverages. I think the most impressive part of the camp, more impressive than the quality of the amenities even, were the camp staff. I can only say that I feel like was treated more like a close friend or a family member than a customer. The camp itself is geared towards sustainability and leaving little to no impact on the environment. The camp goes to great efforts to minimize water usage, as well as recycling and reusing whenever possible. A new clean burning trash incinerator, using technology developed in Australia, provides a way of ridding the camp of what little trash it generates without having an impact on air quality.
I realize that I have written little about the whales yet, and for good reason. The idea to go on this trip was born from a desire to interact with the world famous friendly Gray Whales, and that is how so many people describe the trip. The experience however is so much more than the whale trips, and to limit the amount of effort spent discussing the whole of the experience diminishes said experience. In fact, when the weather on my first day postponed our group whale watch to a later date, I was not disappointed in the slightest as I could use the remaining daylight to explore the nearby mangroves. In about an hour I had been able to spot nearly twenty different bird species including a handful I had never seen before in person.
Allow me to use this paragraph to describe this trip as the best culinary experience of my life. Every meal was different, and each one was finer than any I had experienced in what passes for "fine dining". Ingredients were all sourced locally, prepared fresh and simply, but with the care of a five star chef. The cooks at the camp prepare each meal as if they were doing so for friends and loved ones, and I think it was the amount of care in each dish that made them more impressive than their equivalent dishes I have been served elsewhere and the portions were generous. Even a simple snack of a bean and cheese burrito, made with fresh local goat cheese and fresh tortillas, set a high standard for wherever I eat in the future. I felt the seafood dishes were the most exemplary. Local fish, scallops, and oysters of a greater quality than I had ever experienced were served with simple side dishes of equal allure.
After each evening, I would retire to my cabana underneath a sea of stars that few places in the world can match. Though the wind howled at night the cabanas were well built and provided warmth. Waking before sunrise allowed looks at the Milky Way, and the rising sun was greeted with the sound of gentle waves and warbling birds as the wind calmed as if it were on schedule. The three nights I spent in the cabana were the most peaceful nights of sleep I have had in recent memory.
At the beginning of the second day, and after the first of several "bucket showers" it was time to experience what many people consider to be a life changing event. I have been up close and personal with many different animals before including several species of whales, but there is no better way to prepare for seeing the Gray Whales in the lagoons than that first magical trip in the panga.
The whale observation area is limited to a small portion of San Ignacio lagoon so that the whales have plenty of space to roam undisturbed. However each day there were many whales in the observation area. I had not realized how fortunate I was to have travelled in mid-March. During this late stage of the season there are few, if any, bull males looking to mate with females. These aggressive males deter mothers with calves from the deeper channels they would otherwise prefer and fewer of the whales seek friendly interactions. With no males in sight, the remaining 150 or so cow/calf pairs were free to roam the lagoons without distraction.
Trips into the observation area are limited to 90 minutes at a time, the number of boats in the area is limited to about sixteen, and only two boats are allowed to be near each cow/calf friendly pair. These necessary restrictions did not keep us from having more than our share of encounters. During the first of our four trips we actually had three cow/calf pairs surrounding the boat, with everyone on board enjoying the company of their own whale almost. The challenge quickly became who could successfully kiss one of the whales. This led to many hilarious instances of whales exhaling directly in the face of folks with puckered lips. I personally care not to describe the taste, as the sense of smell is tied strongly to memory and it is a rather unpleasant flavor. The risk however, is definitely worth taking!
The calves have both developing bodies and minds Satisfying curiosity is an important part in the mental health of such incredible creatures and this may play a role in their eagerness to interact. Less than fifteen minutes into our first trip we had already begun our first encounter with the legendary friendly whales of Baja. An inquisitive calf approached fast and it took hardly any time for it to begin rubbing against the side of the boat as we splashed water on it, which is something the whales enjoy. The baby had to have been close to twenty feet in length and weighing over a ton by this point. It began to let us pet its nose and shortly after that, his very large and very gentle mother appeared.
It has been said that some species of adult whales have the mental acumen of a young human child, which many people would consider to be quite intelligent for an animal. Watching this female whale as she lifted her calf towards us told me that there was more than that. She guided her calf on her nose with a care and precision that showed not just intelligence, but a sense of wisdom gained through years of experience (if not decades). I cannot stress enough that both mother and child showed me something else, an attribute greater than their massive size and their obvious intellect.
Gray Whales demonstrate an incredible capacity for love.
At the risk of going off on a tangent, its at this point I feel it is very appropriate and very important to note something that speaks to the heart of this experience. The trip is commonly billed as "petting the baby whales" or "interacting with the friendly whales" and a lot of emphasis is on the personal enjoyment of the trip. But I feel that nobody can completely glean this realization from photos or videos. Viewing the mothers and calves up close is what it takes to see that incredible connection he two share. Gray Whale calves often break away from the boat briefly to reconnect with mom, the gentle caressing reinforces their unshakable bond as she encourages her child to continue.