I had been whale-watching before, but that is exactly what it was—“watching.” There was no human-to-whale contact the first time I went in Australia. We took a big commercial boat out that time, and they packed so many of us on there. And when we finally got to the whales there in Hervey Bay, they were few and far between, as well as far from us in distance. We paid a lot to get a few glimpses, and then it was back to the mainland. So I guess that’s why I had no expectations for my whale-watching here in Ojo de Liebre.
Deb had told us about different whale behaviors and funny stories about their personalities and sense of humor, but I still expected to use the binoculars Tom had brought for bird-watching. I noted the obvious differences for this first whale trip in Baja—younger boat-driver, smaller boat. Honestly, I didn’t expect to get very close—I had heard our naturalist friend, Shari say that Fernando was not as aggressive in pursuing the whales as the other lancheros were. I did not expect the whales to actually want to hang around the boat of curious humans. I assumed we’d have to impose ourselves and chase them to get close enough.
The first trip out, Fernando slowed down soon before we approached the whales. We saw a couple of mama and baby duos for a short time before we were visited by “Snarky.” I don’t know if it was a he or a she, but Snarky was probably an adolescent boy…he sure acted like it. Snarky first greeted us with an arching of his back and a flick of his tail—what Shari said was the whale-equivalent of flipping us off. Snarky got a little jealous of the attention we paid to a mama and baby that came up to us, so he tried blocking us from them. Then he kept us on our toes with his constant tail action—trying to scare us into thinking that he’d knock our boat over. He even followed us on our way back to the dock, showing up to crash our party.
Snarky was a bit rough around the edges. Literally. His tail had obvious bite marks from being attacked by orcas, so he probably had a good excuse for why he was such a badass. He took a particular liking to Deb, who saw him as a misunderstood outcast. But his behavior even made Shari a little nervous. It was then that I realized how powerful an animal the gray whale was and how vulnerable we were as a group on that tiny little boat. Snarky could take our boat out with one swipe of his massive tail, if he had a mind to. But he didn’t.
And yesterday, our second time out was with Luis. After our first trip with Fernando, I was worried that a more aggressive driver would put the whales off, after all. But Luis had that certain je ne sais quoi with the animals as well. En route to the ‘whale party/breaching school’ we were visited by dolphins—I’m not sure how many there were. They swam right up by the boat and jumped in front of its bow. Luis played with them, driving the boat in circles so they could surf our wake. We left the dolphins and woke up many sleeping whales on our way out to the action. While idling the boat to watch some whales breach, we were visited by an especially friendly whale. Shari was sure she was the same whale as one she had taken a liking to a dozen years ago. This one swam right up to our boat and popped her head up to us—spraying us with her snot in the process. Shari gave her a kiss on the nose and then the whale rolled to her side to look at us. While we took turns petting her long nose, she looked at each one of us—taking us all in—“like she was videotaping us with her eye,” Shari said.
Here we were, nearly tipping over our tiny boat to touch this enormous wild sea animal and I felt no fear whatsoever; at least not for my own safety. I did not feel threatened in the least by her, but I did worry she would get too close to the boat’s propeller and add more scars to her body.
I am not quite sure how to articulate the feeling, the connection I had with the whale at that moment. It was one of those rare instances of ‘oneness’ that most of us experience far too seldom, if at all. When the ego—the talking head that it is—just goes away and there is no separation between the whale and I. It was one of those moments that you remember that there are no separate forms of ‘life’—only variations of itself, or rather “ourself.” Life was just life, sort of wandering around, looking at itself, loving itself, and unfortunately, killing itself.
I think it was such an epiphany, or close to it, that manifested itself to people like Shari and Fernando and Luis. They probably can’t put it into words, but they have a genuine connection with other forms of life, yet they don’t put that perspective into a commodity that they can take to the bank. People like that aren’t in it for the money. It’s a nice bi-product of the job, but they could make a hell of a lot more if they commercialized the experience to the extent that the Australian company I’d first whale-watched with did. They could probably invest in bigger boats to pack in more people to make more money, but they don’t. They keep the groups small and intimate, guided by people with real rapport with the animals. And it makes all the difference in the world.
Photos by Annabelle