Whale Tales / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Throughout the years my family has had the good fortune to take some wild trips. My parents were taking us WAY off the beaten path by the age of four. By the age of 15 I had driven through the Andes without maps, wandered the Kalahari Desert watching a pair of newly weaned Cheetah cubs make their first kill and had humpback whales erupt out of iceberg filled sea, ten feet from the fisherman’s small boat we were in. As lucky as we have been, there have been times on these journeys when we have just HAD to make it work, despite the odds: days that we did not eat for 19 hours, nights spent in hotels without septic systems. Our recent trip backpacking in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico was not for those who think spending a week in a well-equipped RV is “camping”. This trip was a bit rough:  No bathing for 4 days at a stretch, sleeping in tents through sand storms, shuffling through seaweed choked, stingray infested bays. But the big payoffs were worth it. We saw both people and wildlife “making it work” in some really harsh territory. As rough as the communities we visited appeared, when we looked a little closer we found an abundance of public art, and an active Boy Scout presence who one day we found in a town square making an impressive metal sculpture with the thousands of collected beer cans and another made of thousands of plastic water bottles that were wired together to form a life-sized whale shark. The amazing experiences I had on the peninsula, the resilience of the native people in Baja, the forbearance of the whales, and the impact they have on each other inspired me to write.

Here's a typical campsite: 

First the people: I did a little digging and found out that the native people of the Baja peninsula belonged to three major groups that were hunter-gatherers and spent their days hunting small animals, fishing and gathering wild foods such as pine nuts and cactus fruit. They lived in communal groups and shelter was provided by holes in the ground covered with branches with the first people coming to the peninsula at least 11,000 years ago. These peoples were diverse in their adaptations to the region and carved out an existence.

Europeans first made contact with the natives of Baja in 1532 and then on his third expedition, in April 1535, Cortés landed near present-day La Paz. Cortés founded a small colony in this area, but the natives stayed very hostile towards the Europeans. Four attempts to colonize the peninsula thereafter all ended in failure. The hostility of the natives, limited resources, as well as the inhospitable weather conditions, making the colonization of the Baja Peninsula was a very slow process. 

All through the human history and well before that, the waters surrounding the Baja Peninsula have been graced by whales. We were there to see the gray whale - Eschrichtius robustus – a species of whale that is limited to the North Pacific that is unique, in that almost the entire population follows a seasonal migration along the coastline of western North America. Almost all of the gray whales spend the summer months in the Bering Sea area between Alaska and Russia, and in the fall the majority of the population migrates south, along the west coast of Canada and the United States, ending up in the quiet lagoons of Baja California during the winter months. This 12,000 mile trip is the longest migration of any mammal on Earth. 

For millennia, California gray whales had wintered in Baja's isolated lagoons, unbothered by natural enemies, but, in 1845, two whalers sailed into Baja's Magdalena Bay and discovered that it was a breeding sanctuary for the migrating whales. The grays were not easy prey, though. Mother whales were ferocious defenders of their newborns, charging boats and injuring or killing crewmembers. While whalers had perilous encounters with other whales, the grays were known as Devil Fish. In the end, the grays were no match for their hunters. The whalers blocked the entireness to Baja's lagoons and turned them into giant traps. What followed was a methodical slaughter that made the once-quiet sanctuaries run red with blood. 

In 1946, an international agreement protected the Gray Whales against whaling and it was estimated only 500 of the magnificent creatures remained. Over the next few decades, Baja's lagoons became sanctuaries again. The only humans who shared the whales' quiet breeding grounds were a handful of local fishermen in small boats. Thankfully, in the last 70 years, the gray whale population recovered, reaching about 24,000 animals - almost as many as there were before the commercial whalers arrived. In June 1994, the California gray whale became the first marine mammal to be no longer considered an endangered species.

Along with the gray whales miraculous recovery, they also have done something unimaginable: made contact with humans. It was early one morning in February, 1972, when the first meeting happened. Hundreds of gray whales were swimming in the inlet, there long migration from the north complete. The two fishermen, Mayoral and Perez, kept their distance from the whales because the creatures were said to smash boats with their powerful tails. 

As the two men tried to catch outgoing tide, they saw a whale approaching, fast. Heart pounding, the men tried to direct the little wooden boat toward shore. Try as he might, they could not outpace the whale. It soon overtook them, and expecting the worst, the fishermen began to pray. The whale raised its nine-foot head out of the water and looked at them. Then, extraordinarily, it began to rub gently against the boat. The whale continued the gentle rubbing for almost an hour. Even as isolated as Laguna San Ignacio is, word of Jose Francisco Mayoral's strange encounter spread. In February, 1976, a whale watching boat from San Diego stopped in the lagoon. Soon after a 30-foot juvenile whale began playing with the rubber dinghies attached to the boat. 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.

The fantastic news brought scientists in droves. During the next five years, sightings and meetings with the whales swelled dramatically. Each year more scientists were on the water and more whales would approach. The special group of gray whales that consistently sought out human contact came to be known as "the friendlies" and they seemed to have passed this trait on to their offspring. In 1990, my parents went to St. Ignacio Lagoon with The Cetacean Society and experienced first-hand the friendly whales bringing their babies to investigate the tiny inflatable dinghies.  As long as I can remember, we’ve had a wonderful photograph of my father – a dentist – with his hand in the baleen filled mouth of a baby grey whale that has raised its head, sideways in an apparent attempt to look right into the eyes of the strange beings on the other side of the water’s surface.

Scientists' agree that all cetaceans - dolphins, whales, and porpoises - are highly sensitive to touch. Perhaps the whales' initial curiosity about people was rewarded by the pleasurable sensation of being stroked, and this sparked repeated contact. When asked, fishermen who spend their days with the whales have another answer: They like us!  Jose' Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist for Mexico's National Institute of Ecology agrees. He believes the grays are curious and intelligent, with a delightful sense of play. Regardless of 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.