Laguna Ojo de Liebre/Scammon’s Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico
March 19, 2011
“Then the plane cut north across Vizcaino Bay, and I was moved by the sight of a great abundance of gray whales scattered below me! The late morning sun, high but still east, made for perfect viewing. It shown down into the fairly clear sea, so I could see many whales underwater, while others rose to breathe in a wreath of white foam. This was primeval: a sight from the Earth of long ago. Many people share in the credit for this restoration. Perhaps this is a great pre-migratory assemblage? I am so grateful for this sight of abundant whales from on high: a fitting conclusion to a Baja visit that was full of shared discovery and natural wonders. A visit that made feel very very alive, and very young and humble.”
— Paul Spitzer, PhD, Ornithologist we met in 2010 in San Ignacio Lagoon
Coming full circle, I bring you back to Baja, where we have traveled from Bahia de Los Angeles to the Pacific (west) side of the Peninsula, to return once more to the lagoon that bears two names: Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Eye of the Rabbit) and Scammon’s Lagoon. I have heard two explanations for the former and one for the latter: one, that there are lots of jackrabbits in the dunes surrounding this lagoon, and two, that at the peak of the whaling era, the waters of the lagoon ran as red as a jackrabbit’s eye. The explanation for the more mundane and benign-sounding “Scammon’s” is that the lagoon was named in honor of Captain Charles Scammon, the New England whaler who is most responsible for the legend of the blood-red waters. He discovered Ojo de Liebre in 1857, exactly 100 years before I was born. Leaving San Francisco and heading south along the coast, he discovered the Mexican lagoons where the California gray whale comes to breed and calf in the warm, shallow waters. It was here in Ojo de Liebre that he and his men slaughtered so many whales, and brought back so many barrels of oil, that word soon spread and competing whaling ships followed Scammon to cash in on the bounty. Between the lagoon whaling and off-shore whaling, in less than 10 years the population of grays had been decimated to the point that Scammon himself predicted that they would be extinct before long.
And they nearly were. But in 1970 the California gray whale was added to the Endangered Species list. In the intervening years, the whales made a remarkable recovery to the point that in 1994 they were taken off the list, the first marine mammal ever to be removed.
Since that time, eco-tourism has burgeoned. The gray has continued to make the 4,000-mile migration from the nutrient rich waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea, to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Year after year they make the epic journey – one of the longest in the animal kingdom. In 1972, a Mexican fisherman named Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral was the first person to experience a “friendly” encounter with a gray. A solitary female approached his fishing boat in San Ignacio Lagoon and, as the story goes, sought interaction with him. Since that first time, the instances of friendly behavior in gray whales have increased steadily. In fact, in the seventeen years that we have traveled to Baja, as non-scientific observers we have watched the whales interact with humans in ways that are inexplicable and dare I say, wondrous. Mothers lift their babies up to the boat, outstretched arms and fingers bridging the void between species. Single adults roll on their sides so that, it would seem, they can get a better look at us. Any attempt at explanation is pure speculation. Most of nature remains a mystery, but only when we are face to face with that mystery do we remember this.
And so it has been these past three days, camped beside the lagoon that not so long ago was the stage of mass slaughter of such scale and brutality as to be incomprehensible. Every time I am here I can’t help but wonder at yet another contrast in this land of extremes.
We have arranged to meet our friends Shari Bondy, and her husband, Juan Arce Marron, at the lagoon. Shari is an independent gray whale researcher and naturalist who first migrated with her beloved grays from her home in Tofino, British Columbia, in the mid-eighties. Spending years migrating with the whales from Canada to Mexico and back again, Shari became one of Canada’s first whale watching tour guides more by chance than design. In the late nineties, she moved to Baja permanently, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. The stories Shari tells of her adventures would fill a book, and will someday if she ever finishes it, but this story is about a young lanchero named Fernando.
“Lancha” is Spanish for “boat”. “Lanchero” is boat driver. The lancheros of the lagoon drive small “pangas” or fishing boats to take people out to observe the whales. The pangas hold ten people, tops. These lancheros – Luis, Leopoldo, Abel, and others — are old acquaintances with whom we share an affection and appreciation, but little real knowledge of one another. The reason is simple: we don’t speak each other’s language. The language we have shared over many years is as non-verbal as the interspecies communication we enjoy with the whales. We talk a little – but it is mostly limited to a “How are you/I am fine” level of communication. Still, their faces light up when they see us, and the handshakes are warm. Perhaps we are like long lost cousins in this land where everyone seems to be related.
Shari is already out on the water when we arrive at the visitor’s center. She comes in with her group, all smiles and stories of remarkable interactions with mothers and calves, and a solitary male who is a little on the rambunctious side. We take a little time to introduce the FtG crew to Shari, although there is no way to prepare them for the five-foot-two-inch powerhouse they are about to spend three days with. We jump right in and head out to the whales, although the wind has picked up and we are not 100% sure of our decision to go out. Windy weather can affect the whale’s behavior, as the animals tend to “hunker down” as we would do. The boats pitch and drift in the rough water, making it hard for friendly whales to approach and stay close to the boat. We decide to chance it, knowing that we may not see as much we hope.
I expect Shari to tell us that Luis or Leopoldo, 20-year veterans and expert whale guides, will be our boat driver. Instead, she informs us that there is a new lanchero named Fernando. “He’s young”, she says, “just a kid really – but he took us out the other day and he’s very good. I half expected him to be kind of a cowboy, being such a young guy, but he was really careful with the whales. And he’s very serious.”
We greet Fernando. He solemnly shakes our hands as we load into the panga, laughing and excited. We head in the direction of the mouth of the lagoon. The afternoon is getting on; the whales are returning from the farther reaches. For these animals, the northern migration is just days or weeks away, and swimming against the tide builds strength and stamina in the calves. These are the kinds of things that Shari has observed over years and years. The whale census peaked at around 1400 animals this year. The estimate now, a little past mid-March, is around 800. Another week and the numbers in the lagoon will drop further as more animals head out to the open sea. It is a long and arduous migration, about one third of the babies don’t make it. (Busch)
I have stood on the shore in Hawaii and watched humpback whales from a distance, but only in the lagoons of Baja have I observed whales up close in their natural habitat. It is unlike anything one can imagine. Due to the small size of the pangas, and the easy manner of most of the lancheros, themselves seasoned naturalists, I never feel like a tourist or an intruder here, but rather a privileged guest. Silently, as the boat leaves the dock, I ask permission to enter their home. A practice of mine when entering any new landscape be it forest, meadow, lagoon, or desert, I am reminded that others live here, and I am a visitor. As the boat skims over the water, one sees the blows first. One here, then another, followed by the slow fluid movement of the whale’s exposed back as she swims along; from a distance it resembles a thin sliver of darkness just breaking the surface. Then, little by little, the waters come alive. A breaching whale in the distance, more blows, maybe a spyhop. It is never the same from one trip to the next – how could it be? This is a living, breathing matrix of interconnected life, and I am a living, breathing part of it.
A solitary whale approaches our boat. It is the whale Shari was telling us about earlier. His behavior is not typical of most “friendly” behavior. Rather than approaching the boat and gently seeking contact head first, he swishes his tail and brings it quite close to the boat, seemingly agitated. He pushes the boat a bit, diving under it, and up to the other side. We talk to him in soothing tones, more for the transmission of intention than sound. His tail flukes are battered – the normally sharp tips bitten off and rounded – indications of orca attacks. The absurdity of the situation does not escape us. This 30-ton animal could smash our boat to bits with one slap of his tail. And yet, with the grace of a dancer, he maneuvers around the tiny panga knowing where every inch of his 40 feet is. This is due in part to the twenty per cent (by weight) of the gray whale’s brain that is cerebellum, which controls voluntary movement and balance. (Busch) We enjoy his presence but even Shari is a little nervous of his unpredictable and less-than-gentle behavior. Still, we are enthralled. It is impossible not to be. After awhile he swims away and we continue on our way. Before long, a mother and calf approach the boat. Again, we are transfixed as they lift their massive heads toward us and we reach our puny hands and fingers down to them. The mother spends much of the visit at the back of the boat near Fernando; she seems to like him, and the admiration is mutual. His serious demeanor gives way to a broad, shy smile. The pair swims off, and we decide to turn to the dock early so we can go more slowly, avoiding the drenching we will surely get at a high speed in this wind.
We travel a ways when another whale crosses our path. Fernando slows the panga way down, and the whale approaches. It is the same whale! We recognize the tail and other distinctive markings and of course the personality. From our location in the lagoon now, it appears that he has followed us, like a stray dog. It seems the only explanation. By now I have convinced the rest of our group that this whale is lonely – a social outcast, and traumatized by the orca attacks. Everyone talks to him, quietly, still a tad nervous, but lovingly nonetheless. He seems calmer, less tail swishing. Despite the rough waters that make the starboard side of the boat more difficult for the whale, he comes to where I am seated and presents his head for a few precious seconds. I try to reach him with the tips of my fingers even while I feel doubt as to how he may react. With the rocking of the boat I can’t quite reach and his head slips beneath the surface. I look to Fernando – he points to his watch and gives us a stern look. It is time to head back. We give our thanks and say goodbye to our new friend and head back to the dock.
Juan, a fisherman by trade, and a real renaissance man as well, has brought us a gift of whitefish. Lots of whitefish. Of our little group of seven, one is vegan, one vegetarian, and four do not like fish. That leaves me. It is hard for me to fathom that here by the ocean, welcomed into a culture that has relied on the bounty of the sea for centuries, I am the only of us that is beside myself with excitement and genuine appreciation for this gift. Juan not only caught the fish, he cooks it as well. Luckily our lanchero amigos join us for dinner. Even so, and even after sending them home with several, I am still, three days later eating whitefish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since this is essentially the only place and time I eat fish, for reasons of moral and ecological conscience, this is fine by me. It will have to carry me for another year. I am grateful to Juan, to the fish, to the sea that could sustain us if we just learned to take only what we need.
Around the campfire that night, we discover another side to Fernando. He is not as serious as first impressions would have us believe. He is talkative, quick-witted, and highly observant, with a good sense of humor. He spontaneously launches us into a campfire language lesson by asking Shari how to say certain phrases in English. Before long he has won all our hearts as he picks up the English quickly and asks for more. His agile mind is hungry. The teachers among us are thrilled – there is nothing we love more. Shari is tired, but true to form she comes electrically alive – ever the life of the party – and teaches around the campfire until we are all happily exhausted and ready for bed. She moves effortlessly from English to Spanish and back again and makes sure that every part of the conversation is translated in both languages. Sometimes the laughter is delayed as a story is passed into the other language, but this has the effect of prolonging the mirth in a kind of wave as the punch line is caught and carried. Shari’s gift of translation coupled with her love of teaching and watching others connect and learn has turned what could have been a slightly awkward, quiet evening into a night of laughter and exuberant relating. A simple, yet profound experience. Sometimes I think this is all we really need.
A picture begins to emerge, like a black-and-white photo in the darkroom solution tray, and it comes to me that we should interview Fernando if he is willing. At 21, he is the youngest lanchero we have ever seen here. I sense a story, and at FtG, to follow the story means more than sharing news or a journalistic point of view. To quote our new friend, Terry Tempest Williams,
I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both. To bear witness is not a passive act.
In rural cultures, so much of what is learned is passed from one generation to the next; father to son, mother to daughter; father to daughter, mother to son. At least that is how it used to be. In the US, the average age of a farmer is sixty-something. Ways of life and centuries-old traditions are dying out all over the world. Languages are lost forever. And yet, mentorship and guidance are not exclusive to an old-world or indigenous way of life. Mentorship and guidance from one’s elders are necessary in order to learn how to take one’s place in the community, to fulfill a vital and essential role in the wholeness of life. It is this that concerns me for our current and coming generations. It is this that draws me to understand more. I want to hear Fernando’s story, and I have a feeling that there is something in it that the students need to hear as well.