Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Touching The Whales

When I started looking at blogs about a year ago, I found that the best way to discover who I was interested in reading was to follow a link from a blogger I already trusted and enjoyed, and if our tastes happened to coincide I'd create a bookmark. James Wolcott, a great writer currently at the creepy "Vanity Fair" magazine and a heavy hitter in the blogging world, gave a recommendation to a blog by somebody named "Lance Mannion" months ago and after checking it out, I've been reading Lance every day since.

His style is that of a friendly newspaper columnist (think Jon Carroll in the "Chronicle") who gets to write about whatever happens to interest him, which can be politics, literature, pop culture, being a husband and dad, the pleasures and difficulties of living in the middle-of-nowhere-upstate-New-York, and his genuine pleasure in women both physically and intellectually. His writing style tends to be in short, punchy sentences that are simultaneously graceful, and he's always a pleasure to read. His "comments" section is also one of the better groups on the internet, with pleasant, smart people who know how to add information and occasionally disagree without being nasty.

If "Civic Center" is modeled on anyone's blog, it's Lance Mannion. To get to his site, click here. He also put out a challenge about a month ago, asking for vacation stories that he could pick up on voyeuristically. Since I'm in La Paz, Baja California for the week, I thought I'd take him up on it.

The following photos and tale are from a trip to La Paz made earlier this year in February. I'm not a big fan of guided tours or expeditions for a whole host of reasons, but I signed up for a "whale watching" trip one day. It was expensive ($100), the van driver/tour guide was a creep who wouldn't shut up, the 5-hour-each-way trip across the Baja peninsula in a crowded vehicle was grueling, and my companions for the day were a very mixed bag, to say the least.

They included a large, snotty family from Mexico City, a French hairdressing mogul and his wife, and a group of conservative old farmers from Alberta, Canada. When we arrived at the small village of Puerto Lopez Mateos on the north end of Magdalena Bay, we were split into two groups and I went with the Canadians so I could act as translator for Modesto, the Mexican fisherman who was taking us out onto the lagoon and who didn't speak any English.

I wasn't expecting much, because most of the the whale watching stories I've heard over the years are tales of frustration. "Look, there's a whale!" somebody yells and by the time you've turned around to look in the direction of the pointed finger, there's a splash to see and not much more. This trip was altogether different.

Gray whales annually migrate from the cold Arctic waters to have their babies in a small number of lagoons on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California, the most famous of which is called Scammon's Lagoon where there are expensive eco-tours and many rules about how far one must stay away from the whales and their babies at all times. In the southern lagoon of Magdalena Bay, venturing out from the mud roads of the tiny fishing village of Puerto Lopez Mateos, the rules are much more Mexican, meaning that rigorous safety, insurance worries and overprotective caution hardly exist.

There were other tour groups who arrived at the same time as us, but it wasn't that crowded on the lagoon, maybe a dozen small pangas, metal fishing boats each holding 6 to 8 people. Our great fortune was having Modesto as our host, because it was obvious he LOVED the whales and they loved him back.

After a tourist frenzy of half a dozen boats surrounding one mother whale and her baby subsided, Modesto had me explain to the Canadians that we were going to get away from everyone else and go to the mouth of the lagoon where we could visit unmolested.

He actually signaled the whales with a message from his outboard motor in a rhythmic pattern, and unlike many of the other guided pangas, we spent our entire two hours hanging with one mother and baby whale pair after another.

The arrival of the first pair of whales was completely terrifying, because they swam directly under our tiny boat, and all it would have required was a flip of the tail or a good bump to send us all flying into the water.

Actually, what they were looking for was to play...

...and to be touched...

...and to have their baleen massaged.

Above all, they wanted the barnacles on their skin scratched off at which Modesto was a master.

No wonder they loved him.

The barnacles were called "el ojo de ballena" or "the eye of the whale" because they were hollow in the center, and were a prized trophy at the end of the trip.

The entire two hours had an air of completely unreality, as if one was living in a fairy tale.

Looking at these and other photos later was the only confirmation I had that the adventure actually happened.


SantaBarbarian said...

Absolutely amazing!

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Awesome pictures! Thanks so much for sharing them. And I'm sure my friend Lance appreciates the nice things you said about him.

mike // potrero hill sf said...

Those are some amazing shots of whales. Very cool photo essay.

Anonymous said...

I love the whales also. Check out this company who has a camp on the shores of Tomales Bay: Blue Waters Kayaking: You could spend 3 days to 6 days in the company of these amazing beings.

Thanks for your delightful story.