Whale of a story

The whole purpose of the trip was to see sea mammals. That and getting out of Seattle’s gloom and doom weather. We’ve seen whales in various places in the Salish Sea & Alaskan waters but this trip promised something more. And it delivered.

From the eastern shores of Baja, we rode in vans to Magdalena Bay where Gray Whales give birth to their calves. At three different times since Europeans arrived on this coast, the whales have been hunted to near extinction and still they survive. At one time their numbers were below 300 animals. Now there are likely over 26,000. Each year they make this 7000 mile journey from their feeding grounds to this large bay.

The town, Puerto Lopez Mateos, doesn’t offer much beyond the whales. And before tourism became a business, fishing kept the town alive. The cannery is still there and operating. Today there’s a school, a restaurant or two, a military outpost and the docks for the whale watching industry. Beyond the two or three paved roads, homes line the dirt streets.

But once we got to the docks, we could see what kept the town alive. Several stands offered whale watching expeditions. Cheap tourist trinkets were sold in other stands. A snack bar served hungry tourists.

We boarded the pangas, the small open touring boats that would take us out into the coastal waterways. Eight or nine to a boat. Our panga had hardly motored more than 100 yards when we encountered our first whale. A mom with her calf, who in his excitement bumped up against one of the boats. I was surprised at how close we got to the pair, but it was the only time luck brought us that close.

At one point our boat sat in the broad channel where Magdalena Bay opens to the Pacific. Big rollers came in from the Pacific and the whales were all around us. Our heads were whipping from one side to another as the other people in the boat kept seeing whales. All the tail splashing and fin slapping was happening at some distance. But closer by, whales again and again popped up doing a sky hop which we were told was how they looked around above water. Very impressive.

Later that day, back on the Sea of Cortez in the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, just as the sun was setting, a Blue Whale and her calf surfaced several times around the boat. The largest animal on earth, it really didn’t look like much….a giant blimp almost completely submerged except for a long backbone, sometimes with a second small blimp next to it.

It was a day or two later in the same waters when the captain spotted a group of bottle-nosed dolphins. As we got within a couple hundred yards of them, they turned and headed right for our boat. It appeared they wanted to play on our bow wave, a feat we had experienced several times in our little chartered trawler in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest.

Later we spotted a huge group of common dolphins, probably 100 or more of the creatures, in a fairly tight knot, leaping and diving in a feeding frenzy. The captain piloted the boat through the group three times. Each time, many of the dolphins left their feeding to play with our boat. We all wandered down to dinner that night grinning. You just can’t help but react with a smile to the sheer exuberance of the dolphins.

But the best was yet to come.

On the last full day of our cruise, we had to don our wetsuits by 7:30am and hit the water. It was an overcast morning which didn’t make the water look too appealing. But as our boat got near the rocks where the adult sea lions rested after a night of fishing, the juvenile sea lions made a beeline for us. One by one we rolled off the side of the zodiac skiff into the cold water and into the midst of a teenage sea lion party.

Adult sea lions, and particularly the big males don’t make as charming swim buddies. That’s part of the reason for the early morning snorkel. The big guys would be more likely to leave us alone. When one big male lumbered past us, I was grateful he was intent on getting home.

The juveniles were something else all together. Like frisky pups, they swam right up to our faces. They nipped at our fins. And I watched one guy bite on Peter’s fin and shake his head. I swear he as trying to steal it.

It seemed they delighted in sneaking up to us & darting in front of our faces. They watched us carefully as they swam past, the eyes tracking our movements.

Three of the pups found a puffer fish which they batted around like a beach ball. Glad I wasn’t like that puffer fish.

At times they abandoned their individual water ballet and clung together, looking for all the world like they enjoyed each other’s company.

They followed us out to our skiff at the end of our snorkel and seemed to regret us leaving as much as we did. Okay, probably not.

But was a grand ending to a week of sea mammals.

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