Whale Whiskers

 

We made it to Santa Rosalia from Isla San Pedro Martir in one long and tiring day. After a pretty fabulous fast downwind sail where we saw speeds pushing 8 knots (under two reefed sails, mind you), we rode out quite a nasty blow with rain and wicked seas as we passed Punta Virgenes. The wind had died (the old calm before the storm trick, don’t you know…), and we had put the sails away as we motored the last leg of the trip under an ominously dark cloud. No sails turned out to be a very good thing because when that storm cloud threw its stuff at us, even under bare poles Galapagos lay down on her side in the dramatic gusts more than we care for. I think she was tired. I know I sure was.  I tell you this: it sure is good to know and trust your boat in those conditions. As the last of the storm blew out, and the last of the daylight disappeared behind the hills, we slid into the marina at Santa Rosalia and threw our lines to the outstretched arms of the welcome committee on the docks there, safe at last and ready for a good night’s sleep.

Who’s that looking at you? There is definitely somebody ‘home’ here.

We had pulled in several days early due to the coming strong north wind that was predicted. When it developed, it came with a vengence. Docks were rocking and rolling, waves were cresting and foaming inside the marina enclosure, and we lost one of our 3/4” stern lines, which was protected by firehose, to chafing lickety split. It happened so fast! To say that we were grateful to be in a marina for that wind event would be a decided understatement because the alternative would have been pretty bad. As we prepare to leave the Sea of Cortez, memories of the remarkably forceful wave patterns are firmly etched in our minds forever. For two days the winds did their work and we felt that leaving the boat, even in the marina, would be risky. So we were dead pleased when the winds died down before we packed up our backpacks and hopped on the bus to Guererro Negro; off to see the grey whales in Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Eye of Hare or Jackrabbit)  on the Pacific Side of the Baja Peninsula.

The whale lagoon.

There are many places on the Pacific side of the Baja to go see the annual migration of grey whales. On our sail down the coast we stopped in at Bahia Ballena and anchored to watch the greys coming and going into Laguna San Ignacio. Choosing which place to go and who to hire as a guide can be challenging. After falling down the research rabbit hole, I decided to go with Whale Magic tours in Guererro Negro, run by Shari Bondi. Shari is a transplanted Canadian who has been studying the greys for decades. She has lived near this lagoon since 1988 and has rich and deep knowledge of their history here, as well as knowing many of the whales individually. If you want to go see the whales with her outfit, contact us and we can share planning details that may help you out.

Over the decades they’ve been safe in these waters, the whales have learned to trust people and now many of them will come and visit boats and allow you to touch them. This is literally the only place in the world where you can have this kind of close encounter with grey whales because it’s not like out in the open ocean they have learned to approach boats for kisses. Here in the lagoon, though, they actually seem to enjoy it and when whale waters are lucky, the whales actively approach the boats and eye the humans aboard. Shari says we are their entertainment, and who am I to question that? It sure seems that way.

In my happy place.

Mike is giving this whale all the love.

We enjoyed two perfect whale watching days. It was partly sunny, the water was calm, and only a few other boats were out on the lagoon. We motored slowly out to the viewing area, very close to the whale camp actually, and soon were surrounded by whales. The first couple was a mother and a baby, and I was thrilled because Shari said there were not that many of them this year bringing babies up to visit because food was scarce last year and many had lost babies on the route south this year. This baby got close and spyhopped next to the boat, showing off its baleen grin. But momma whale was not interested in a prolonged visit and scooted the baby away. Still, it was my first up close view of a baby whale. And I wish I had a photo of that baleen grin! So cute!

Very soon we had an adult visitor. She lolled around next to the boat, going to the stern first to let Shari pet her. I swear that these whales know Shari. She says they like the vibration of the engine in neutral, that it attracts them like a massage. But I think differently. They go to her first. She reaches her arms out to them and they come over like large, crusty lap dogs. After getting the snugs from Shari, then it’s everyone else’s turn. The whale lies alongside the boat and we all reach our arms way over the side trying to make contact. Soon we are giving the whale all the love. Grown men with US Marine Corp caps are teary eyed with wonder at these gentle leviathans. “Look at that! Can you believe this? Oh my god! Rachel, did you get a chance to touch her? Come over here and pet her! It’s amazing! Look into her eye! She’s looking right at me! Hey, I think she likes me!”

She’s looking right at me!

We get maybe 15 minutes of stroking, petting, and baby talking this whale, complimenting it on its stunning array of barnacles and sea lice, and then it slips away to the sound of our collective sigh of regret.

Our sadness is short lived, however, as two more approach us and soon all our arms are out, torsos hanging over the water to reach further down, camera clicking and more exclamations of amazement. We are enchanted, in love with the very notion of encountering wild animals with this much trust in humanity.  We discover whales have whiskers! Did you know that?  They have stiff bristly hairs every few inches, vestiges of land life maybe? Do these whiskers allow the whales to feel vibrations in the water? Are these whiskers with a purpose? Only Google knows and we are too busy falling under the spell of the whales to care.

Whale breath. It does not stink in this lagoon.

To pet face of a whale. Brilliant.

And here’s another thing: whale breath. Have you ever smelled it? Because as a rule it stinks of rotten fish. Every time we’ve been near whales of any kind in the past, you can smell them even if you can’t see them. But that’s not the case here in the lagoon because the whales here are not actively feeding. They are mating, calving, nursing, training up their babies for the long swim back to colder waters, but they are not feeding much. So their breath does not stink! We got right over those blowholes and were actively sprayed many times. But never smelled anything.

I feel like we got very lucky our first day out. Shari said it was the best day with whale contact in weeks. Our second day we had two whale visitors who stayed by the boat to receive our touches and blow into our expectant faces. We saw  a number of mother/baby pairs and had exuberant whales jumping and spy hopping, eyeing the boat. We even saw a baby practicing breaching. But it was a day for watching animal behavior, less so for interacting with them. In spite of their lack of fear of human beings, they are, after all, wild animals and will do as they please. Who can know how they decide which days are days to be personal with human beings? All I know is I could have stayed out there all day in communion with these surprisingly peaceful beings.

You know Mike videotaped me hanging over the edge of the boat so here you go:

Lots of breeching for joy and spyhopping to check out boats.

One more checkmark on the bucket list: We have petted whales in person and have found them to be rubbery, crusty with barnacles, and disquietingly sentient. My one regret: my lips never found purchase with a whale’s flesh. I tried, Lord knows I tried. And I came only a whale’s whisker away from planting one on my scar-faced friend who returned to me more than once to receive adoration. But it was not to be. I was asked repeatedly to please not fall into the water from the panga so, unwillingly, I gave it up.

So close!! If only my lips had been longer.

A bonus for us was these lovely Cannonball Jellyfish that were everywhere. As the whales would rise up to the surface, the aptly named Cannonball Jellies would roll down into the water. I thought the color of these was incredibly rich. They have no sting, by the way. We were able to pick them up and examine them closely.

Cannonball Jellyfish on whale.

With a whale in the distance.

And some Eel Grass floating around.

While Guerrero Negro has precious little to offer in terms of the town, if you go to see the whales there don’t miss the opportunity to drive out to see the bird sanctuary at the edge of town. It’s worth a long slow drive through the protected marshlands looking at the many species of water birds, including several species of ducks we had never seen before.

We are back aboard in Santa Rosalia and ready to head south.

S/V Galapagos, standing by on channel 22.

Extra bonus photos of the marshlands and a couple of cool birds.

These vistas, though.

Osprey with an unfortunate fish.

Reddish Egret