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.

Mule riding in Baja:

Riding a mule was never on my bucket list. But when it was proposed to the group of us, my thought was, “when will I ever have this chance again?” Quickly followed by, “just gonna do this once.” So my husband, my brother and I all raised our hands when they asked who wanted to go riding. We were on the eastern shores of the Baja Peninsula and the small boat cruise company had connections with a local family who would once a week gather enough mules to take groups off the boat riding.

It started as a rather strange process, vaguely reminiscent of junior high dances or waiting to be picked for a kick ball game in grade school. The whole group of us stood in a line or rough semi-circle. The local vaquero stood in his cowboy boots beneath his cowboy hat, looking first at each mule as it was brought forward, then at the line of gringos and with a point of his finger and a nod of his head indicated who was to get on the mule.

Peter went first. Was that a good thing or not? Malcolm and I were among the last.

I tried to discern a rhyme or reason for how we were matched with our mules. By weight? By height? Were timid riders matched with mild mannered mules? Did zodiac signs come into play? But the cowboy has his method and no one questioned his wisdom. And after we were loaded on the mules, young boys led our mules to the side in a rather haphazard mix of nervous riders and fresh mules.

Our mule train started up a broad dirt road and I was encouraged when my gray mule moved right along to get to the front of the pack. Those initial steps were the only lively ones out of him. After that he had to be strongly urged to keep up, and picked up speed only to prevent the mule behind us from passing. Uphills were a real struggle. But that happened later.

Initially the path was wide enough for a car and the views of the Aqua Verde Bay below us were spectacular. I began to feel brave enough to take out my camera.

I got feeling pretty comfortable, swaying and rolling to the easy gate of the mule. Figured I looked pretty competent, too. Felt sort of like an adult version of the pony rides at the zoo or at a carnival. Clearly, I thought to myself, we had made the right choice to go mule riding.

But as the reached to ridge line, the path narrowed. And the distance to be covered was revealed.

As the mule made its way through the brush on the valley floor, it became clear any control I thought I had of this mule was just an illusion. He knew the route. He was going to go at his pace. I was, quite literally, just along for the ride. The mule in front of us made that even more abundantly clear as he stopped at each bush that caught his fancy for a snack.

Stubborn as a mule is not an inappropriate phrase.

A small flock of turkey vultures sat on the ground not far from our mule trail, not the least bit disturbed by our presence, perhaps waiting for an errant rider to fall off a mule.

Not long after passing the vultures, I became uncomfortably aware of my sit bones. I had always thought I was well padded, but was discovering my natural padding was not quite where I needed it for this mule ride. And while the scenery remained gorgeous, I began to worry the end was not in sight. Just how long is a two hour ride?

The final stretch came when the Aqua Verde Bay was back in view. We stopped at the top of the ridge and our cowboys tightened the cinches on our mules.

We had been instructed to lean back on steep descents. At this point I began to worry if my legs would support me when I finally did get off. But I leaned back and hoped for the best. As a side note, our guides hopped off their mules and lead them down the steep terrain. What did they know that we didn’t? No pictures here; I was too busy holding on.

The good news is none of us embarrassed ourselves by falling off. And while we all walked a little funny for the first few steps, we were able to move. The real soreness didn’t set in for a couple hours and for days later I was rather painfully reminded of the fun from my one and only mule ride.