My friend Jeanne Teleia is in love with whales, so much so that she researched and recently offered a Baja Gray Whale Wellness and Inspiration Retreat in San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific side of Baja Mexico. I like whale tours but I’ve never experienced this level of intensity before. In Hawaii and Alaska waters, boats have to stay 100 yards away from humpback whales, and 200 yards from killer whales, though whales can approach the boats. These laws can vary by country, state and by species.
Gray whales were hunted almost to extinction; in 1946 they became the first marine mammal to be protected. During the last 30 years, the gray whales in three lagoons in Mexico have been approaching the small fishing boats and humans. In whale season, these pangas are filled with Eco-tourists hoping to see, touch, pet, even kiss whales. The lagoons are heavily regulated to protect the whales. San Ignacio Lagoon is the smallest of the three, only 16 miles long by 6 miles at its widest. Yet the observation area is only 2.3 miles2, so if the whales don’t feel like playing, they easily avoid the boats. As we approached the observation area, our captain had to check in with a monitor to report the number of people on board; the regulations limited the boat to 90 minutes in the observation area.
The Eco-tour camps that support this activity are extremely isolated. Jeanne had spent weeks researching the camps to find the best one for her retreat. She picked Antonio’s because it had wooden cabins, not tents, the most comfortable boats, and great food. We had use of the main meeting space/dining room any time for Jeanne’s well-planned wellness exercises, reading from their lending library, enjoying piña coladas and margaritas at happy hour, and just hanging between boat trips. They were even willing to cook special meals for the many diets the nine participants represented: gluten free, pork-free, lectin-free, dairy-free, low/no sugar; does anyone eat a regular diet anymore?
Antonio’s Camp desalinates water for drinking and uses solar to generate their own hot water, and enough electricity to power their kitchen, lights, and outlets in the camp. While they did have spotty WiFi, we were asked not to attempt to upload photos to FB or elsewhere. Hairdryers were strictly forbidden, and we were encouraged to take short showers.
Just being in such a wild, little-touched place was new for me. I never even went to camp as a kid. Baños are of the out-house variety. But instead of the pits common elsewhere, these use sawdust to compost additions to the throne. They were actually quite nice. No smell, quiet, almost contemplative.
One of the coolest aspects of being at the camp was the timing – during full moon and the Spring equinox. The timing of sunrise was very close to moonset and moonrise was close to sunset, just on opposite sides of the flat-terrained camp. We didn’t know which way to look!
The wind blew easily over the flat terrain, and I was thermally challenged the entire time. Nights were cold – in the 40’s? Most of the time I wore three pair of pants and six layers on top, plus a life jacket. But the whales made up for it.
We spent four days enjoying six whale tours. We always saw whales close up, and saw how different they looked from each other. One mom in particular was a beautiful gray mottled color. We also saw their blowholes and eyes up close; Jeanne instructed us not to touch either. Gray whale blow holes are shaped such that under still conditions, they produce a heart-shaped spray. I only got one photo of this because the wind was always blowing.
Every day we saw whales breach and spy-hop, close to the panga. Daniel, our boat captain and son of Antonio, told us that this year, 230 whales came to the lagoon. Most had already started the 10,000 – 12,000 mile migration back to Arctic feeding waters, the longest migration of any marine mammal.
But 70 remained. Of that 20 were babies. At birth, the calves are 13 feet long, (for reference, the pangas are only 26 ft long) and their weight increases by 100 pounds a day. Daniel could easily tell us the age of a baby by the size. The babies needed more time to strengthen muscles for the long migration in ocean waters. So the 40 ton moms took their babies to practice in areas of stronger current. We even saw a mom repeatedly show her baby how to dive and scrape the bottom for food. Gray whales are mostly “right-mouthed,” like humans are predominantly right-handed. So the adults often had scrape marks on the right side of their mouths.
Interestingly, I was surprised to hear my extremely cautious dad talking in my ear during the first boat outing and throughout the night: “This is dangerous. You must balance the boat when everyone else charges to one side. You could get pitched out of the boat and be crushed by the 40 ft mother. These animals have lice – why would you want to touch them? Humans were killing them only a few decades ago – how do you know they won’t take revenge? You gotta be outta your mind.”
A couple of times I began to believe him, like when the adult whales got under the boat and gently pushed us up. It has taken years to release my urge to be fearful of new situations and I thought I had finished with all that. But I wound up having to address it one more time: “I release my fear for my physical safety.” Jeanne, a Holistic Wellness Coach, also helped. She encouraged me to finally “get in there” and put my hand in the water.
So on our second trip out, I knelt down at the edge of the boat, pulled up my sleeves, put my hand in, and chanted, “Splash, splash, come on baby.” (The splashing is the signal to the whales that we humans want to play.) Sure enough, a baby surfaced nearby and I reached out. She swam right into my hand. I will never forget it; so smooth, like a hard-boiled egg, and too young to have barnacles. It felt magical, and I felt euphoric-silly-happy all the way back to camp.
The whales came close enough to the boat for petting on at least four of our outings. I touched and petted them twice, the first time a baby and the second time a baby and her mother. Some of the gals were able to kiss the whales, but that was a bit much for me. I had the mental image of a mother whale’s barnacles scraping across my lips.
On one of the boat trips back to camp, Daniel stopped near shore and jumped out. He returned with two species of scallops growing on the bottom. These were not at all the mental image I had of scallops. Daniel carefully opened them, and shared the meat. So sweet. We were all joyful to learn we’d be eating scallops that evening back at the camp.
It’s chance opportunities like this, the fun of the group, the wellness work we did, and of course, the whales, that created an all-around fantastic experience. If you get the chance, do go. Jeanne plans to offer this and other whale and dolphin retreats in the future. Check out her website and FB page for future adventures.
For my essays on humpback whale-watching in Hawaii, see:
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