Traveling light is the only way to fly was my initial thought as a group of six whale watching enthusiasts and one graduate student boarded the small charter plane heading to Mexico. Flying through the clouds one can see the distinction where desert meets ocean and the large salt pans left over from expanding ocean tides years before. Flying over the large blue lagoon I spotted a whale swimming peacefully through the water and cheered in excitement, solidifying the reason I boarded the small plane to collect data for my capstone project in this remote Mexican lagoon. The gray whale travels 7,000 miles from the Bering Sea to three different lagoons along the pacific coast of Baja de California to give birth and raise baby gray whales. The male gray whales also migrate to the lagoons to find females willing to mate in the warm Mexican waters. Once the babies are strong enough to make the journey North a mother ventures out from the lagoons safety into the open ocean where together mom and calf will make an approximate 93 day journey to the foraging ground. When they arrive the mother gray whale will eat for the first time since leaving the foraging area many months before and hopefully her new calf will be by her side.
I am a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. My project,Through Their Eyes a whalewatching study, is following the gray whale migration to identify best practices of responsible whalewatching along the Pacific coast. The study is supported by The Whaleman Foundation along with my academic committee Dr. John Hildebrand (SIO), Dr. Jay Barlow (NOAA), and Ryan Wulff (NOAA). The data collected during this research trip will be presented on June 4th at the Center of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation Symposium held at SIO.
Looking below from the small window of the plane a very small building with what appeared to be dirt run way and was the targeted final destination of our decent. The airport is a one room building with whale watching regulations posted on the wall. I would later come to find out all the establishments along the lagoon in San Ignacio are small and built to be removed easily, leaving the area to it’s natural state with no human trace left behind. After a smooth landing on the dirt run way and seeing the swimming gray whale I was anxious to get a small camp town called Kuyima. This is where I would spend the next four days aboard small pangas, 10-14 passenger boats with bench seats and a small engine made specifically not to capsize during a rough encounter with a whale. I would also be spending my hours begging gray whale mothers to bring their babies close to the boat so I could touch, hug, and kiss them, and when not in the lagoon I would be awaiting the next ride out to the lagoon to see the whales. And collecting data for my project.
After gathering our 12×18 duffel bags from the storage bins located in the wings of the plane a van took us along a washboard road to Kuyima. Upon arrival we were treated to some delicious quesadillas and greeted by our host Jeff Pantukhoff and Carlos Sextos in the beautiful wooden palapa. The site tour of Kuyima included vital lessons in how to use the four different types of toilet houses (composite toilet, women’s flushable, men’s stand up, and men’s flushable), how to remove bees from the water faucet before brushing teeth and washing hands by blowing on the bees instead of swatting them with our hands, and how to collect the solar warmed water in a 3 gallon bucket for the showers.
After spending the past four months collecting data for my whale watching project aboard larger boats in Southern California, I was not quite prepared for the abundance of whales in the lagoon on our first afternoon tour in the lagoon. In Southern California one tour is typically 2 to 3 hours in length and typically two pursuits per tour are normal. A pursuit is where a whale is followed for a specific amount of time, but does not approach a boat. In the lagoon there were hundreds of spouts, breaches, spyhops everywhere and as far as the eye could see. The high quality problem was where to look, I did not want to miss any whale action. I smiled and thought to myself – a big whale bathtub!
As rookies to viewing whales from a panga our jaws dropped in awe at the size of the whales and the pure fact they were so close to our boat. When the slightest possibility an encounter may happen (an encounter is when the whales actively seek human touch) a switch inside the human brain turns off all rational thought and goes nuts. All people aboard are yelling baby sounding noises or phrases like “Come to the boat boat we want to kiss you,” “We love you baby,” “baby baby baby,” “Pllllleeeease come to the boat,” “No mama don’t take the baby away” “Where did they go?” all the while splashing like maniacs. The thought of this makes me want to be in the panga calling out to the whales once again. It’s nice to be a child once again and for some reason certain whales find it amusing and so do I. We must appear as loud little aliens with stick arms and big bulbous heads. Oh how I wish I knew what they were thinking.
The next four days following the initial tour I touched and kissed the chubby squishy noses of many baby gray whales. I quickly fell in love with this vast remote area where one can completely disconnect from all technology and fully immerse themselves in the present moment and glimpse a moment in the life of a spectacular being. We learned the beauty of song as we came to love the lyrics of “Happy Whale” written by Sextos. The first line starting off “I want to see you happy whale” continuing on in tune about touching and kissing the breaching whale. On one of the tours Sextos brought his flute along to play for the whales, I believe the power of song is as strong in the whales as it is to humans.
In the lagoon there is a designated whalewatching area open to viewing whales. To get there the panga must travel as close to shore as possible leaving the closed area for the whales only, free of boat traffic. Upon entering the whalewatching area a panga must radio ahead to be sure there is room and to initiate the viewing time. Only 16 pangas are allowed in the open whale watching area at one time and must leave once the 90 minutes are up. Radio communication between the panga captain and the enforcement boat ensure all companies offering tours follow the same rules. The reserve is open from 8am to 6pm. Depending on weather and water conditions most operators offer 2-3 tours per day. There are six operators in San Ignacio.
Kuyima camp grounds are located right next to the lagoon shoreline. When looking north there is an expansive lagoon with mountains far off in the distance turing to face the east one sees the water continue and the expansive mountain range grow closer to the clouds. As one looks south the desert is desolate continues until it too meets the mountains. The mountains are so far in the distance they blend together with the horizon in what appears to be an abstract painting. To the west of Kuyima is where the lagoon meets the ocean the opening of the lagoon grows larger, and the coastline is littered with beautiful seashells. The mangrove forest lines parts of the coastline protecting the communities from harsh storms and providing ecosystems services, such as cleaning the water for the whales and all who live in the lagoon.
Throughout the desert tall sticks appear from the ground holding osprey nests, a predatory sea bird with a regal look. These birds use the area for nesting and typically hatch 2-3 eggs per year once they become mature. Egg hatch at various times as to grow the strongest hatchling during lean times and to increase population during times of abundance. Both female and male osprey’s care for their young. While visiting Baja I witnessed a female feeding both of her hatchlings on top of a very tall perch, it was one of many favorite memories.
One of the many issues plaguing the area is trash, plastic trash. Inland from the lagoon are small villages lacking waste removal mechanisms like a dump or trash pick up day. Trash is blown with the wind and the wind is always blowing. Trash is littered everywhere. One afternoon we spent cleaning the desert to do our part. With two vans full of volunteers we filled up to 10 bags of trash which would be burned in the newly acquired incinerator once it is installed at the Kuyima camp grounds. The trash not only blows across the desert affecting terrestrial animals and plants, but blows into the lagoons impacting the whale, dolphin, and turtle populations.
Many of the mornings I left my small cabana to walk the shore of the lagoon finding my way to the mangroves. A sand mound appeared at low tide and was the perfect location for a peaceful yoga session to start my day. The sunrises over the mountains beam with pastel colors and are just as spectacular as the vibrantly colored pink and orange sunsets. The many birds of the lagoon would watch me as I did yoga. I would look at them and they would look at me, snowy egret and great egret are my favorite, followed by the brown pelican and the blue heron. I do wonder what they thought of the three month intrusion by humans on their mangrove homes. On my beach walk back to the campground I would collect trash knowing it was one less piece going in our precious ocean.
As the sunset on Kuyima and many twinkling stars filled the black sky, Sextos and his wife played a small concert for our group. Kuyima is managed by a special group of people providing love and hospitality unlike anywhere I have been before. Sextos’ favorite saying “Do you like it?” We all reply gleefully “NO, we LOVE it!”
My last memory is with a baby whale we called Top Notch because he had two small propeller cuts on his head. He played with us for over 45 minutes. At times he would disappear to find his mom, then come directly back to our boat. He explored everyone on the boat, giving time for touching and kissing to each one of us. I don’t know how many kisses I gave him, but I do know that I wished him a safe journey through the treacherous waters heading north to the Bering Sea. Prior to arriving in the foraging area of the Bering Sea, Top Notch will face many challenges in the open ocean such as stronger currents and storms, orca predation, entanglement, boat strikes, boat noise, pollution, irresponsible whalewatching by various types of boats, all while learning the map of his future migrational route where he too will complete a 14,000 mile journey from his initial home in the lagoons to the foraging area in the Bering Sea and passing by my home in San Diego, CA.
Q. What is it like to touch a whale?
A. They feel squishy and rubbery. The rostrum (nose) is not hard but more like a stress ball with the gooey insides.
Q. Why do whales like the boat engines on the back of pangas?
A. Good question that no one really knows. Perhaps the whale enjoys the vibration. The engines are in neutral so the propeller is not in motion, although the engine is still on vibrating. The whales rub up against it. During one tour we had to quickly get away of two babies who were playing rough with each other right by our boat. They started to play with the engine and lifted the panga into the air. The captain said “no more they play to rough.”
Q. Where is the best place to sit in the panga?
A. Hopefully the answer above gives you a clue. Sit in the back of the boat by the engine.
Q. What can I do to eliminate the impacts to Top Notch?
A. There are many things you can do to lessen the human impacts faced by Top Notch during his entire life. You can reuse, reduce, and recycle and tell all your friends and family. You can host clean up events in your community. You can write to your local politician about the needs to protect whales and dolphins in their habitats. You can join organizations protecting whales and dolphins so you can learn more. You can donate your time or money to organizations like The Whaleman Foundation to help save dolphins in Taiji or protect whales from entanglement and navy sonar. Follow blogs and news from NOAA, your local area and organizations. Become apart of the social media cites where your favorite organizations post news. There is room for everyone in the need to protect the whales and dolphins. And believe me any small thing you do will lead to great impacts.
Q. Is knowing Spanish necessary in Kuyima?
A. No they speak English, Spanish, German, Japanese and many other languages. Everyone is welcome in Kuyima!
Want to learn the Happy Whale Song? Click here!