Travel

In Baja, Whales Walk on Water

Baja Magdalena Bay Whales

Footprints on water: Now, there’s an incongruent notion, if not a miraculous one, given that God’s handiwork abounds around the Baja Peninsula. Gently sculpted, white sand dunes part water from the sky on our port side; gnarly, green mangroves host white herons and egrets to starboard. A cloudless horizon glows blue on Magdalena Bay’s flat surface and only the sighs of gray whales blowing heart-shaped spray into the air rise above our excited whispers.

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Since daybreak, MV Sea Bird has traveled in a northerly fashion up the bay with dozens of these giant mammals moving majestically slowly ahead of us.

Baja Magdalena Island
Baja Magdalena Island – Northern Coast

For the last hour, though, we’ve been dead in the water: The bottleneck of Big Boat and Big Mamas with baby whales at the narrows of Hull Channel mandates queuing. Amidst the standing-room-only crowd at the bow of the 152-foot-long boat, the regular whirr of rewinding camera film resounds louder than the hum of the boat’s engine.

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“Big blow at eleven o’clock. Over there, at two o’clock, a mother and calf are surfacing. Look, look, straight ahead another pair-jeez, they’re everywhere,” says Steven Zeff, a naturalist, and whale specialist on this Lindblad Expedition, who are working hard to contain his enthusiasm while maintaining the hushed awe onboard. He’s standing on a platform above the crowd as he passes off the microphone to his co-anchor, Dr. John Francis who describes the play-by-play action.

One more time, Dr. Francis explains how whales walk on water.

“When a whale flips its tail underwater, water rushes in to replace the water that wells to the surface where it creates the glassy pools you’re looking at. The same thing happens when you slap your hand into a swimming pool,” says Francis, National Geographic Society’s Executive Director of the Committee for Research and Exploration. “Whalers used to think these large circular slicks that form on the water’s surface were oil washing off of whales. Although the tail never surfaced and they couldn’t physically see the whale, by noting what direction the slicks were moving in, they could tell what direction the whale was going, and they actually hunted whales by following, what scientists call, footprints.”

Francis hands the mic back to Zeff who surveys the crowd like a preacher from his pulpit. Then tongue-in-cheek, head nodding to the rhythm of the boat, Zeff says, “I am really sorry it’s taking so long to get through this channel.”

So goes this Sunday morning church service of sorts, and on this, our first day traveling “Among the Great Whales”, it’s been a quiet way to get acquainted with some of the planet’s largest mammals.

Magdalena Bay Landscape
Magdalena Bay Landscape
Baja California, Mexico

Equally mild have been the weather conditions: sunny skies, flat seas; no wind whatsoever. But by late afternoon, I quickly learn that weather south of the Border shifts in an eye blink, and much more than whales leave their footprints on Baja.

Out of nowhere, the wind kicks-up this afternoon while we’re exploring Boca de Soledad. Dramatic and desolate, the northernmost beach tip of Magdalena Island connects its namesake bay on the western side of Baja with the Pacific Ocean. Nothing grows atop these sand dunes; the wind keeps the powdered-sugar-fine grains of sand in near-constant motion. Here, time is a bottomless hourglass. Buried deeply in the sand are branches from tree trunks that drifted ashore. New arrivals litter the beach: turtle bones, pelican skulls, Elegant Venus seashells; my own footsteps.

Within an hour, though, the sand swirls up the dunes, rising like steam on hot asphalt, and pours over the sloping folds in the manner of water rushing down a hillside, filling in any man-made tracks.

Although this morning’s calm switched speed to a fast forward this afternoon without warning, the sand blows only as high as my calves. It doesn’t blast me off the island or prevent photo-ops. But the sting of sand on bare ankles is a subtle warning that Aeolus, the god of wind, owns these parts. Whether on land or sea, the wind’s footprints are visible in layered, undulating waves, and this particular dunes’ hike is a donkey walk compared to the bronco busting, late afternoon Zodiac ride.

I’m riding point. I get this lofty position because I’m wearing a wet suit. Eight of us hang on to the safety ropes surrounding the inflatable boat and try to keep our butts steady on its sides while 20-knot winds and choppy seas work hard to unseat us. Sixty-degree water washes across my body. Salt cakes my sunglasses. Wet hair sticks to my face.

Just one close encounter with a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) could make all this worth it. But this is not to be, not today. And the next day is rougher. Four Zodiacs bounce and bang on white caps toward the narrowest end of the bay, seeking protected water sandwiched between Magdalena Island and the Baja Peninsula. Here, the lagoon’s current is stronger than the wind. And here, gray whale mothers with month-old calves collect to give their two-ton offspring some swim-in-place exercise.

“It’ll be another three weeks before the whales migrate north, and we think they swim in these shallows to help strengthen their babies for the trip,” says Michele Graves, one of the five natural history staffers onboard Sea Bird. She’s at the helm of the Zodiac, trying to keep bodies and cameras as dry as possible, but the surge of wind and water regularly washes over Janine Smith’s back. This Los Angelina is the riding point this morning. She is not wearing a wetsuit.

At least six pairs of mothers and calves are nearby, maybe within 100 yards.

Cabo San Lucas
Panoramic Aerial View of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California

When the little guys surface for air — about every two minutes — mama whale is always lurking close, surfacing with a much bigger blow. Her downtime can be much longer, too; up to 20 minutes, if she’s eating. But scientists think it’s unlikely that Gray females eat while they’re in this bay giving birth to their babies and attending to their growing up lessons.

Farther off, a big gray has spy-hopped five different times, wiggling its huge tail underwater, thus shoving its head high above the surface to survey any surrounding activity. A lot’s going on: Heads on board the Zodiac crane left and right to see the spy-hops; bodies shift from side to side to catch a whale fluke here, a spray over there. Whiplash comes with the thrill of a frisky calf that strays from mom to check us out. It swims under the boat. Ten people hang over starboard. The calf turns, comes back again, then it happens: A close encounter of a very personal nature-the tiny tot surfaces right next to us peeks over the edge of the Zodiac, and quietly slips back into the sea.

“Where is that baby’s mama?” Janine wonders out loud. A question each of us ponders as we scan the chop for telltale clues to mom’s whereabouts. Then there she blows: Mother surfaces barely ten-feet off the port side, spraying a geyser of saltwater, bad whale breath and snot into the wind, i.e., into our faces. Her immense torso, maybe 30 tons of raw power dwarfs the Zodiac while she rounds up her infant.

The adrenaline rush from the whales’ nearness eventually gives way to a tender moment in nature, and the realization that a mother’s protective instinct transcends all species. But of course, nature isn’t always so tender.

This afternoon dunes’ hike is about a mile across a narrow section of Magdalena Island. Our destination the Pacific Ocean. The stark, rolling mounds of sand are hot beneath bare feet. High contrast shade folds into the soft white sides of the dunes, occasionally punctuated by coyote scat or jackrabbit tracks. Twice, we see the bounding bunny, its footprints a blur of rushed motion in the sand.

The ocean announces itself before we clear the last rise, and a beach of five football fields’ distance separates us from the breakers. A green sea turtle greets us. It’s dead. Within a half-mile, at least ten more turtles are in varying states of decomposition. The bodies of two sea lions have washed ashore, and skeletons of small rays, pelicans and other birds dot the barren landscape.

“No, I don’t think this is out of the ordinary because the turtles and sea lions don’t look like they were slain by men-their meat is intact,” said Peter Rumm, the naturalist hiking with us. Later, though, I learn that the orange marks on the carcasses denote a tally by scientists who monitor this shoreline, a killing field of sea life drown in fishermen’s drift nets.

On another day, everyone aboard Sea Bird watches a group of dolphin tosses a log into the air. But this is not a log, and these are not trained dolphin.

Male Mangrove Warbler, Isla San Jose, Mexico
Male Mangrove Warbler
Isla San Jose, Mexico

Hours later, when the dolphin group dissolves, some staffers bring the abandoned baby dolphin to the shore where we’ve been kayaking. A mini-conference of biologists and naturalists and doctors and on-lookers figure the baby was stillborn, probably within the last 24 hours, and the dolphin was only trying at first, to shake the baby into life and, finally, mourn their dead.

Making sense of death appears to be as difficult for marine mammals as it is for Homo sapiens. But the drama of life’s cycle is softened for me this night. After another good dinner with good wine on board the boat, I curl up with a blanket on the bow to listen to gray whales. They’re everywhere. Their spraying sighs sound so close, so reassuringly kind, it seems I could reach out and pet them. I imagine them eyeing Sea Bird with the same curiosity I have for them, and I fall asleep watching stars leave footprints on a black, black sky.

“Good morning,” says Bud Lenhausen, the overall expedition leader for Lindblad who’s responsible for the impeccable operational flow. This is an earlier than usual wakeup call over the boat’s intercom, which can be switched on or off in the rooms. “It’s a little before seven, and you all might want to come to the bow of the boat to see a few long noses, common dolphin.”

Yesterday, we left the Pacific Ocean, rounded the tip of Baja and entered the Sea of Cortez. Following a dock call in Cabo San Lucas, a charming Mexican town built into the short, scrubby mountains on the desert peninsula, we sailed among humpback whales and a school of Mobula rays that leaped so high and so often, I was reminded of the nightly bat migration from the caves in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Now, at least 300 dolphins are soaring and splashing around us with as much gusto as are the rays.

“We estimate for every fin at the surface, there are six or seven dolphin swimming beneath,” says our underwater specialist, Iliana Ortega, clasping a cup of hot, strong coffee. Clearly, a jump-start is needed this early morning to count the fifty or so fins at the surface, and to register all that nature has delivered so far. But this is Valentine’s Day, and an already spoiled bunch of soft-adventurers is expecting nothing less than love notes from the sea. We are not disappointed. By the time breakfast is finished, a blue whale comes to call. Rolling at the surface, the biggest-ever-on-earth animal is also having breakfast. We watch it for more than two hours.

“Scientists can spend years studying whales and never get to see a big blue feed,” says Dr. Francis. Apparently, working scientists can’t get enough of these elusive animals either, and a trace of respect laces his words together. “Usually the plankton and krill they eat is deeper, maybe fifteen to thirty feet down. What you’re seeing is really rare.”

An Old Faithful-like geyser of water shoots high into the sky, and the bathing beauty rolls over with its mouth open, baleen showing. It salutes us with a massive pectoral fin straight up in the air, and on board, Sea Bird tilts ever so slightly to starboard as 70 binocular-ed faces race to deck right, following the feeding blue whale.

More saltwater candy is forthcoming this day. Two fin whales drop by, the fastest of all whales with 25 mph track records. A small and distant Bryde’s whale is identified near shore. And during an 11 a.m. showing of “Giants of the Deep”, a National Geographic TV special produced by Dr. Francis, about 30 pilot whales call us topside again. These guys are feeding at the surface, too. Up in tandem; down in tandem. Their broiling motion is like popcorn in oil. Playful, buoyant and exuberant, pilot whales are really dolphin that weight one-to-four tons.

In total, we sail the Sea of Cortez for four days. Jason Kelley, the onboard geologist, explains how the rift in this particular continental plate has created a 10,000-foot deep canyon of cold water. But before Baja Peninsula breaks away from the mainland along the San Andreas fault line in, say, 30 to 40 million years, everything from plankton to sea lions, from krill to blue whales is periodically condensed into this speck of liquid on the planet’s surface, into the Sea of Cortez. Not just for our viewing pleasure, of course, but we see all of this via Zodiacs, kayaks or hikes on shore. Birds and lizards, fish and turtles, in fact, we swim with sea lions, and remarkably in this chilly water, with tropical fish such as king angels and sergeant majors.

After a day when four different whale species hang around the boat – all at once – it gets harder and harder to rush to the bow in the late afternoons because, ho-hum, there’s only one humpback a-visiting.

Bud’s last wakeup call proclaims, “The Sea of Cortez doesn’t get better than this.” Flatter than an ice hockey rink, people set off to kayak along its shores, or hike among the scrubby foothills of Isla San Jose. I choose neither. Satiated with nature, I go into lizard mode; topside, I assume a reptilian posture lying on my stomach, body soaking up sun rays. While absorbing this life-giving energy, at any moment I can spring into action if, perchance, a giant squid approaches. Until then, the barren landscape gets my undivided attention.

Onshore, a little white house is tucked into the moonscape of mountain folds by the sea; on a wide, sandy beach back a ways from the water. Big boulders in the Sea of Cortez create a small, protected bay just south of the homestead. Clothes hang on a line between two outhouses; a turquoise shirt, the only vibrant color among the shades of brown.

It’s hard to tell if a road leads away from the site. Probably not, this is an undeveloped island, and there are no electric wires, no telephone poles in sight. Two overturned boats on the beach are the likely sources of transportation. Nothing stirs, not even a breeze. God’s handiwork — sparse vegetation and bleak mountaintops — is incredibly desolate. If the miracle of life at all levels of the food chain weren’t so harsh here, this might be a testament to His/Her sense of humor. For sure, the surrealism is cartoon-ish enough. I roll over in the sun, close my eyes and smile: In my mind, Roadrunner beep-beeps across those irregular summits, a dust cloud billowing behind, and in the haze I swear I see Wiley Coyote doggedly pursuing his tiny footprints.

Lindblad Expeditions offers several cruises to the Sea of Cortez: 1-800-expedition

Barbara Bowers is a freelance writer and photojournalist.

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