Punta Abreojos perches on the western end of Bahia Ballenas. The eastern end of the bay is the entrance to Laguna San Ignacio. The earliest reference to the area is an account by the Spaniard Cabrillo in 1542 when he found and named the laguna. Sixty years later the great Baja explorer Vizcaino found the whales and named the bay. It was a good designation as the Gray whale population returns every year to give birth to their calves in the lagunas of Bahia Ballenas.
The Gray whale summers and fattens in the Bering Sea. In October the pregnant females begin to move southward. Just afterwards come the adult females and fertile males. Last are the adolescents and children and elderly adults. They cruise about five miles an hour in small groups and from October to January they are strung out like speckled beads between the Bering Sea and the lagunas of Baja California. The expecting mothers arrive first to the shallow, warm, protected lagoons and there give birth to calves and nurse them during their growth rate of about ten pounds an hour. The adults arrive to copulate in the tropics. The copulating females will become the pregnant mothers of the coming year. Some of the adult females are also mid-wives and teachers and are called Tias. The calves are matured through the help of all.
In March the freshly impregnated females head north. Then follow the males. Later come the adolescents and children and elderly. Lastly to depart are the new mothers and their calves and the guardian Tias. For at the mouth of the lagoon swarm the white sharks, and only with the defense of the Tias can pass the mothers and calves to safety in the open sea. Then once again the speckled beads are strung between La Baja and the Bering Sea. By May all the whales are home again where they summer and fatten and the circle is complete.
The Gray whale has faced extinction. Two hundred and fifty years after Vizcaino named Bahia Ballenas arrived gringo whalers to the region. Almost all the whales were killed during the fifteen-year span between 1852 and 1867. Laguna Ojo de Liebre lost all her whales to the gringos when she was known by them as Scammon’s Lagoon. Melville Scammon found whales in the laguna in 1852. He had seen spouts from afar and had searched for their source. During the next nine years, he alone knew of the locale and he slaughtered whales by the hundreds. His longboats would rush through the boca of the lagoon with his men firing rifles at the newborn calves. The mother whales would respond by charging the longboats to protect their young. This honorable reaction was then abused by Scammon, who utilized the motherly instinct in his ploy to draw the protective mothers into easy harpoon range. During the tenth year, other whalers learned through spies of the location of the laguna and in 1862 the slaughter began in earnest. Five years later there were so few whales left to kill that the whalers moved elsewhere. But they left their shanties.
The Bonnie Ship the Diamond
Fortunately for the few surviving Gray whales, rock oil came into use where previously whale oil had been used. The resulting decline in demand discouraged whalers and the Gray whale began a secret recovery. International whaling laws further protected the Gray whale. Now the population has recovered and is expanding.
In the Company of Whales
Capitán Jorge found us among the pangas with the legion of walking squawking seagull gaviotas. With cold water stinging our feet we pushed Panga Cuarenta into La Mar. Capitán Jorge put our bow on a high peak in the distant Sierra San Pedro and soon we were moving across a shimmering slick silver sea toward Laguna San Ignacio and the whale nursery. La Mar lay still, but breathed deep sighs that cushioned our ride.
To the north, we watched the coastline slide by. A ghost town appeared. It was Campo del Medio, the original site of Punta Abreojos. Now only remain abandoned houses and rusted relics of ancient cars. Farther east we slipped by the opening to Estero del Coyote. We cruised almost an hour before arriving at the sandbars protecting Laguna San Ignacio from the vast Pacific.
The deep sighs of La Mar spawned great swells pushed northward from the Southern Sea. Rolling over the sandbars, they broke and crashed and so guarded the tiny perilous passage into Laguna San Ignacio. Outside the danger, we rose and fell. The mountainous rollers lifted us high above the surrounding sea before dropping us into the trough between swells, where we sensed being in a canyon, unable to see anything but blue walls surrounding us. While atop the huge waves, we studied the sea for the signs of where that day lay safe passage into the lagoon. Then, when certain of our rumbo, we broke for the boca and ran between swells and surf, and with the sea breeze pushing us, we glided safely and silently into the whale nursery.
Once inside the surf our panga cruised gently over still water. Suddenly a vapor geyser erupted from the sea, accompanied by a loud whoosh. We quickly turned our heads to see a gigantic shiny black and white mottled back suddenly surface, and rise and roll over, and disappear leaving only a slick spot on the green water. Before we could exclaim, the surface rippled just beyond the boiling slick, and a smaller gleaming black back rose and rolled and vanished, and a second lesser slick appeared.
All around us spouted geysers. Soft whooshing announced where to look next. In any moment dozens of vapor spouts erupted into the clear air. We pointed Panga Cuarenta toward the giant sand dune called Azucar Rubia and crept forward. Suddenly in the distance sprang from the green water the full body of an immense whale. She soared into the sky and then curved gently to her side and crashed into the lagoon with a tremendous white splash. In the next instant, a short distance off starboard, a gigantic shiny black and white head thrust through the sea surface and an eye the size of a dinner plate stared at us. The visual contact joined us together and we became one for a long moment. Then the head slipped silently back into the greenness and disappeared.
We cut the motor on our panga and we lay still and quiet atop the clear green lagoon water and we waited and watched and then came the treasured ringing of silence that announces oneness and the arrival of the mystic.
Suddenly the stillness was shattered by a deafening whoosh and we found ourselves drenched with warm vapor and when we looked beside the panga there lay in the water within arm’s reach an enormous sparkling whale. We gasped and before our mouths could close erupted beside her a smaller glittering leviathan that was her child. And both mother and calf lay still beside the panga and we listened to them breathing softly and we reached out and we caressed them and stroked them and kissed them and they rubbed against the panga to be closer to us and they turned on their sides and held their heads above the water and with their huge eyes they stared at us and we stared back and the moment was shared as one and won by all.
So began our encounter with the docile mother whales and their curious calves in the whale nursery. We were never alone. Always beside the panga played the calves and always watched them their smiling mothers. A hand in the water brought both to be petted. The newborns were slick and black and nalga de indio. They felt silky. Their noses sported long white whiskers and their backs and tails donned white barnacle sacabocados. Their blowholes seemed great lips kissing the air. Especially they enjoyed their baleen rubbed and a hand into the mouth brought sighs of ecstasy from the mothers. To watch us they would stand on their tails just away from the panga and with their long heads out of the water they would stare and gurgle. In joy they would leap fully from the sea and splash around a safe distance away. We called them mansitas, the tame ones.
Sometimes the whales would first surface far away before cruising toward us. Other times they would emerge near us and we would enjoy them playing around our drifting panga. Always they arrived with a whoosh and a giant geyser that sometimes wet us. When they passed under our panga we could see that the tail of the mother was as large as the boat. One mother sang to her infant and once a yellow stain spread over the water when a mother’s milk spilled into the sea.
For two days we played with the whales. When tired they would lay beside the panga and seem to sleep. A hand trailing in water would be nudged to encourage contact. Their soft breathing would fill the air with mist and the melody of life.
When at last we moved toward the boca to leave the lagoon, the whales followed us all the way to the first breakers, and it was with sadness that they stood on their tails watching us go, and we waved goodbye, and then passed from Laguna San Ignacio into Mar Pacifico, and there we paused, stillness in the panga, for all of us knew that we had been blessed by the mystic, that we had been in the company of whales.
On the third morning we pointed Panga Cuarenta offshore to hunt mating adult whales. We found them near Rocas Bocanas. We would see geysers and speed toward them and predict where the whales might next surface and we would go there and wait. Soon they would erupt with a whoosh and we would cruise to them and follow along in the panga. They swam sometimes just under the surface and we would follow the slick they created with their huge tails. Capitán Jorge called the slick la calma, the calm. The young sailors on the bow of the panga could almost touch the whales through the calm.
When the whales were cruising on the surface they held their backs straight. When they dove they arched their backs and the water rolled up their spine and suddenly a colossal dripping tail would flash into the air and spread a shadow over the bow riders before vanishing with a whirlpool into the blue sea. We played all day with the enormous couples frolicking in the ocean meadow and only orange in the western sky chased us finally to the beach at Bahia Ballenas.
On the fourth morning we pointed Panga Cuarenta offshore. Past the lighthouse we cruised into the open sea. After a while we found a sargaso rip franja and we began to troll. Soon we took barracuda and jurel. As we fished we gazed northward. Between Panga Cuarenta and the beach spouted geysers. These marked whales leaving Bahia Ballenas bound northward toward the Bering Sea, their summer feeding grounds. Nos vemos al otro año we called. See you next year.
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