The Friendly Whales
of San Ignacio Lagoon

Hunted to Near Extinction, the Friendlies Seek Human Interaction

Story by Paula McDonald

The morning sun shimmers on a sheltered inlet halfway down the Pacific coast of Mexico's Baja California. I climb into a small wooden skiff. Beside me is my 12-year-old granddaughter, Rhiannon. I've invited her along to see for herself the mystery of Laguna San Ignacio.

Our guide, a local fisherman, starts his ancient outboard motor and pushes off into the lagoon. We chug along for about for about a half-mile, peering into the glistening waters. Suddenly, a huge head with an eye the size of a softball surfaces within inches of the skiff. In a moment, 80,000 pounds of gray whale, three times the length of our boat, hovers motionless next to us.

For a second no one breathes. Then Rhiannon and I reach out and caress the huge creature's scarred, rubbery face. Between clusters of barnacles, the skin is smooth, slick and pleasant to the touch. When we rub the surface, it gives a bit, like a wet inner tube.

We stroke the skin and the lips---inside and out. Kneeling in the bottom of the boat, we lay our cheeks against the whale's cheek. Then the 45-foot giant rises to face us head on, and we lean forward and kiss her. Rhiannon is so intensely involved that she almost crawls over the side of the boat onto the whale's head. Our guide grabs the back of her life jacket and holds on.

Moving away, the whale splashes and churns, turning exuberant side rolls, huge flippers foaming up white water. Then she returns for another petting with a delicacy of movement that seems impossible in such a massive animal. Finally, exhilarated and exhausted, we go back to shore.

That evening, in a thatch-roofed hut on the edge of the lagoon, I sit with Jose Francisco Mayoral, the first person to experience a close encounter of this kind with the wild California gray whale. The fisherman pushes back his baseball cap and the sun-etched crevices of his face deepen with concentration as he remembers the day.

It was early one morning in February, 1972, when Mayoral and his partner Santo Luis Perez set out to fish in Laguna San Ignacio. Hundreds of gray whales were swimming in the three-mile-long, one-mile-wide inlet. This was usual between December and April, for the whales breed and calve in the protected inlets of Baja, the final destination of their annual 6,000-mile migration from the Arctic. Mayoral and Perez stayed as far as possible from the spouting creatures because the whales were said to smash boats with their powerful flukes. Mayoral, who had 16 years' experience at sea, knew of no one who had been close to a health gray whale and lived.

As Mayoral rowed to catch the outgoing tide, he saw, straight ahead, a whale approaching. Heart pounding, the wiry 31-year-old turned the little wooden boat and pulled hard for shore. Try as he might, however, he could not outrow the huge beast. In moments, it overtook them. Expecting the worst, the fishermen dropped to their knees and made the sign of the cross. The whale raised its nine-foot head out of the water and looked at them. Then, remarkably, it began to rub gently against the boat.

Sinking and resurfacing on opposite sides of the boat, the whale continued its gentle nuzzling for almost an hour. At first the men prayed, frozen in fear. But gradually, Mayoral's terror gave way to curiosity. He was tempted to reach out and touch this oddly unthreatening monster, but a lifetime of caution kept him still.

At last, finished with whatever its purpose had been, the whale disappeared below the surface. Some time passed before either man spoke. Then they headed home. To his wife, Mayoral said only, "No fish today."

But word spread through the cluster of small wooden shacks edging the lagoon. A miracle of sorts had happended; one of the whales had tried to touch the men, and the men had returned unharmed. Why?

In nights to come, by flickering kerosene lamps, Mayoral and Perez told the story. They and other fishermen struggled to understand. What did the whale want?

For Millennia, California gray whales had wintered in Baja's isolated lagoons, unbothered by natural enemies. Then, in 1845, two whalers sailed into Baja's Magdalena Bay and discovered that it was a breeding sanctuary for the migrating whales.

The grays, however, were not easy prey. Protective females were demonic defenders of their newborns, charging whaling boats and injuring or killing crew members. Whalers had dangerous encounters with other types of whales, but the grays were the only ones they called Devil Fish.

One Yankee whaler, Captain Charles Scammon, recounted in his 1856 Magdalena Bay journal another captain's experience, "We were chasing a cow and calf when the boat-steerer sung out: 'Cap'n, I've killed the calf, and the old cow is after us!" I sung out to the men to pull for the shore if they loved their lives; and when the boats struck the beach, I told all hands to climb trees."

In the end, the grays were no match for their hunters. The whalers blocked Baja's lagoons and turned them into giant traps. What followed was a methodical slaughter that made the once-quiet sanctuaries run red with the blood of dying whales. Their carcasses were floated to the beach, and blubber was boiled on the spot for oil. Whalebone and baleen were hauled aboard ships to be sold for corset stays, brushes and umbrella spokes. As petroleum eventually replaced whale oil as fuel, the gray were killed primarily to be sold as pet food.

By 1946, when international agreements finally protected the California grays against commercial whaling, it was extimated as few as 500 of the magnificent mammals remained.

Over the following decades, Baja's lagoons became refuges once more. The only humans who shared the whales' quiet breeding grounds were fishermen in small boats. The gray whale population rebounded to 24,000 animals - almost as many as there were before the commercial whalers arrived. Subsequently, in June 1994, the California gray whale became the first marine mammal to be removed from the U.S. list of endangered species.

So isolated is Laguna San Ignacio - even today, it is without telephones, electricity or running water - that word of Jose Francisco Mayoral's strange encounter did not reach the outside world. Then in February, 1976, the Salado, a whalewatching excursion boat from San Diego, anchored in Laguna San Ignacio. A 30-foot adolescent whale approached and began playing with the rubber dinghies tethered off its stern. The captain and others climbed into the dinghies for a closer look. Finally they dared to pat the seven-ton youngster. The following day, it returned for more. For the next month it continued making contact.

The fantastic news brought scientists flocking. During the next five years, encounters with friendly whales increased dramatically. Each year more scientists were on the water and more whales would approach. Gradually, the fishermen who initially thought the scientists were crazy, came to be the most frequent acquaintances of the giants they had feared for so long. The special group of gray whales that consistently sought our human contact came to be known as "the friendlies". Many with distinct personalities were even given names - Margie, Scarback, Mancha, Bopper and Amazing Grace.

Our favorite in the five days we visited was a calf we called Brincadora - "Bouncy" in Spanish. Brincadora didn't just swim, she soared with her back arched like a dolphin, bouncing over the waves as if catapulted by an undersea trampoline. Whenever her mother breached majestically out of the water, the little whale would try too and end with a splat and a belly-flop.

Each time Rhiannon and I took to the water, we were surrounded by whales of every size and age--spouting, sleeping, mating and spying on the humans. One by one, the friendlies would come close to be touched and stroked. Patiently, by example, mothers taught shy newborns to come directly to our outstretched hands. Other older calves sometimes outswam their mothers to reach us.

One of the friendlies actually picked up our wooden boat and carried us for a bit on her back. We whooped and cheered with excitement. Another whale pushed her head under the prow of a nearby boat and slowly twirled it in circles.

Monte Woodworth and Karen Baker, managers of Baja Discovery Whale Camp, which provides whalewatching excursions, witnessed a startling incident three years ago. Tanner Woodcock, an eight-year-old Montana boy, stuck his arm into a whale's mouth and rubbed its sensitive tongue and gums. The creature closed its mouth and tugged on Tanner's arm but released it, unharmed, a few seconds later.

Adventure travelers, science museums and wildlife groups have organized trips to visit Laguna San Ignacio. Contact with the whales is governed by strict rules. With few exceptions, local fisherman are the only ones the Mexican government allows to put boats on the lagoon. Many of them serve as guides during the winter whale season. Special areas in the northern half of the lagoon are off-limits to all except the whales and their calves. Rules are enforced by onshore government observers with high-powered telescopes - and by the fishermen.

Why are the whales approaching us? What do they want?

Jim Sumich, a San Diego-based expert on the migratory patterns of gray whales, notes that except for whalers, peoples have avoided these great animals throughout history. Perhaps the notoriously curious creatures might have made contact long ago, had we allowed it.

Scientists' agree that all cetaceans - dolphins, toothed whales and baleen whales - are highly sensitive to touch. Perhaps the whales' initial curiosity about people was rewarded by the pleasurable sensation of being stroked, and this sparked repeated contacts.

Is that what the whales are getting out of this? A good scratch, nothing more? When asked, fishermen who spend their days with the whales have another answer: they like us.

"It is more than touch," Mayoral says with quiet conviction. Jose' Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist for Mexico's National Institute of Ecology agrees. He believes the grays are curious and intelligent, with a delightful sense of play. Baby whales will often push their sleeping mothers around the lagoons. So why wouldn't they have the intelligence - and gentleness - to twirl our boats like bathtub toys? That's what Bruce Mate, director of the Endowed Marine Mammal Research programs at Oregon State University, suggests.

Regardless of who is right, we seem to have crossed a frontier with another species, another world. And, remarkably, the contact was initiated not by us, but by the whales.

Story reprinted with the permission of Readers Digest.

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