In Mex­ico’s stun­ning Mag­dalena Bay, hu­mans and whales meet up

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - BRIAN J. CANTWELL

MAG­DALENA BAY, MEX­ICO — Just off the bow of our 22-foot open boat — what Baja fish­er­men call a “panga” — a whale spout erupts with an adrenalin-spik­ing “fwooosh.” Sea­wa­ter jets into the air, catch­ing the bril­liant Mex­i­can sun in a fleet­ing rain­bow.

“Woo-hoo!” I yelp. (Some­times I can’t help my­self.)

As the grey whale’s bar­na­cle-ar­mored back slices the wa­ter a few me­tres away, in the near dis­tance my eye takes in a scis­sor-sharp line of bar­ren coastal peaks. A thought oc­curs: This is a bit like vis­it­ing an­other planet, where alien life forms seem just as in­ter­ested in us as we in them.

In­deed, for a vis­i­tor from Seat­tle, the burnt-si­enna crags of coastal Baja seem like an­other world com­pared with the Pa­cific North­west’s emer­ald and grey coast­line. And the whales that sur­round our boat — not flee­ing, of­ten lolling just be­neath us, some­times sur­fac­ing so close they can look us in the eye — are in­trigu­ing vis­i­tors from a watery world.

I was on a day­long ad­ven­ture on this wide and wild 50-kilo­me­tre­long bay on the lower reaches of Baja California. To this coast, after one of the long­est mi­gra­tions of any mam­mal on Earth — more than 8,000 km each way — as many as 20,000 grey whales from cold Alaska seas come ev­ery win­ter to mate and have their calves.

Mag­dalena Bay is one of the places where curious hu­mans pay homage to them. And it seems the cu­rios­ity is mu­tual: It’s com­mon here for whales to come right up to boats, some­times let­ting hu­mans pat them on the head.

I was last in Mag­dalena Bay 22 years ago when my fam­ily and I pi­loted our 32-foot sail­boat from San Diego 1,300 km down Baja’s wild Pa­cific Coast and into the Sea of Cortez. Mag Bay, as it’s known among sailors, of­fered us a few days of wel­come refuge from capri­cious wind and waves.

Most of the huge bay was rel­a­tively un­touched by hu­man de­vel­op­ment then. It has changed lit­tle, still lined with sand dunes and man­groves, its skies filled with pel­i­cans and frigate birds, its waters with sea li­ons and clams.

For this visit, I’d flown the pre­vi­ous (very long) day on Alaska Air­lines via Los An­ge­les into the Sea of Cortez town of Loreto, then rented a car for the 2½-hour drive across the penin­sula to the small fish­ing town of Puerto San Car­los.

Some­thing I’m pretty sure wasn’t the case when last I was here: The high­way was paved all the way. From the bay’s outer reaches on my ear­lier visit I also hadn’t seen the big diesel-pow­ered elec­tric plant on the in­land edge of town. Luck­ily for the town and bay, pre­vail­ing winds blow its plumes of brown smoke in­land.

But once you’re out on the vast bay, there’s a look and feel of wilder­ness.

On­line re­search had led me to a lo­cally run tour ser­vice, Mag­dalena Bay Whales, man­aged by 40-yearold “Cap­tain Marco” (full name: Crispin Marco Antonio Men­doza Lopez). His fish­er­man fa­ther, Crispin Men­doza, 78, was the first lo­cal who started tak­ing tourists out to see grey whales here in 1970. He got the job be­cause gringo vis­i­tors had be­gun ask­ing for whale-watch­ing rides and he was the only fish­er­man in town who spoke good English.

He has come to be known as the Whale Whis­perer.

“I feel like I can talk to the whales and I feel they can lis­ten to me,” he told me over din­ner one night. “I talk to the whales like I talk to my lit­tle puppy at home: ‘Come on, baby, let’s play!’”

These days, his son is an af­fa­ble and en­ter­pris­ing busi­ness­man. Book a whale-watch­ing out­ing with his com­pany on­line and he’ll also book you into his fam­ily’s lit­tle ho­tel, Ho­tel Is­abela. Don’t ex­pect the Hil­ton. Just to find the place, you have to stop by the whale-tour of­fice in town and some­one will lead you through a maze of dirt streets and rag­tag cin­der-block homes typ­i­cal of ru­ral Mex­ico.

The ho­tel rooms are mod­ern and well-fur­nished (ex­cept for the short­age of read­ing lamps). But don’t an­tic­i­pate more than a driz­zle from the shower. And the best I could find on the TV was a fuzzyp­ic­ture trib­ute to Mex­i­can boy bands (does any­body re­ally miss Menudo?).

But put aside a few First-World ex­pec­ta­tions. The friendly folks who run the place make up for all that, the food in the lit­tle pala­pastyle restau­rant is tasty, and break­fast is in­cluded in your stay.

At 7 a.m. we meet in the restau­rant be­fore our day of whale-watch­ing. I’ll be in one boat and an­other will carry a fam­ily from Los An­ge­les: a mom, dad, their grown daugh­ter (named Kia, like the car) and her hus­band (Dakota, like the states).

Kia and Dakota are ad­ven­ture-tourism junkies. They’ve just come from La Paz, a few hours to the south, where they went div­ing with whale sharks. They’ve done a shark-cage en­counter in Hawaii, with Gala­pa­gos sharks, and a dol­phin en­counter.

“What we want to do next is off the coast of California, a shark-cage dive with great whites!” Dakota tells me as I munch my huevos rancheros.

I’m con­flicted, hop­ing this out­ing goes be­yond belt-notch­ing. That it will be life-af­firm­ing, not ex­ploita­tive.

Cap­tain Marco sits and tells us about Mag Bay’s whales.

“We started to see whales at the end of De­cem­ber, and this year we see a lit­tle bit more than the usual. In the area we can go, there are 25 to 30 whales right now.”

It’s late Jan­uary when I visit. He says we’re too early to see many calves, which usu­ally ap­pear more around mid-Fe­bru­ary.

Around far-flung cor­ners of the bay there might be as many as 250 whales, he says, but govern­ment reg­u­la­tions bar whale-watch­ing boats from ar­eas where mother whales typ­i­cally take their calves to nurse.

I’ve cho­sen his out­fit be­cause on­line re­views said the boat cap­tains re­spect the whales. But I’m also con­cerned about a re­viewer who said she had seen whales blood­ied by boat pro­pel­lers on Mag Bay.

Cap­tain Marco tells us that reg­u­la­tions re­quire boats to stay 30 me­ters away from whales. U.S. stan­dards in ar­eas such as the San Juan Is­lands re­quire boats to stay about 200 me­tres away.

“If whales ap­proach us or want to in­ter­act with us, that’s al­lowed,” Marco ex­plains.

Cur­rently in his area, 32 boats have per­mits to take tourists whale watch­ing. Of ev­ery 10 tours, he says, maybe seven have whales come right up to the boat.

That’s an adult whale of 35 to 45 feet, or a calf of 8 to 12 feet, get­ting friendly with a 22-foot skiff. Sur­pris­ingly, accidents are rare.

Cap­tain Juan is at the helm of my boat. Cap­tain Marco’s niece, 13year-old Mer­ary, ac­com­pa­nies us as we launch from the edge of a man­grove la­goon at 8:30 a.m.

The sun, still low in the east, glints di­a­monds off the serene bay. Far shores are lost in mist. Pel­i­cans, a blue heron and a white egret perch among man­grove branches.

Cap­tain Juan soon gooses the out­board to put the panga up on plane. We race the other boat across the bay in wa­ter shal­low enough that I can see waves cast spi­dery shad­ows on the sandy bot­tom. The air is cool; I’m thank­ful I’ve been warned to wear lay­ers.

We pause to in­spect sandy Isla de Patos, with thou­sands of pel­i­cans and cor­morants clus­tered ashore, then cir­cle a chan­nel marker where we bark back and forth at tawny sea li­ons who bask on its base.

We see an­other tourist boat with vis­i­tors in or­ange life vests. No life vests are of­fered on my boat, nor is there any dis­cus­sion of safety.

At 9:05, near the bay’s en­trance, Juan cries out. I spy a flunked tail break­ing the wa­ter less than a kilo­me­tre ahead. Mer­ary points to the spray of whale spouts off to our left. For the next three hours, we slowly cruise the mouth of the bay as whales ap­pear, some in the dis­tance, some right next to our boat. At one point around us I count six more pan­gas with tourists. None are chas­ing whales at high speed. Most main­tain their dis­tance un­less the whales ap­proach them.

We see myr­iad tale flips, we see lum­ber­ing giants loaf­ing be­neath our boat, we see a dis­tant breach — and for one dra­matic mo­ment a whale thrusts its colos­sal, bar­na­cled beak up over the tran­som of our panga, as if to give Cap­tain Juan a big wet kiss. Whoa, did that just hap­pen? “Bonita! Bonita!” chants Mer­ary, call­ing whales to us, us­ing the Span­ish word for “pretty.”

When we’re all get­ting a tiny bit jaded, Cap­tain Juan gets out his iPod, holds it up to the mi­cro­phone of his marine ra­dio and broad­casts Mex­i­can hip-hop to our part­ner boat. T

he An­ge­lenos all start jiv­ing and do­ing their ver­sion of a whale dance. We laugh across the wa­ter.

Very dif­fer­ent species of Earth­lings check­ing each other out? I’ll come down on the side of life-af­firm­ing.


A bar­na­cle-en­crusted grey whale sur­faces just ahead of a 22-foot whale-watch­ing boat in Mag­dalena Bay, Mex­ico.

Shrimp tacos and a beer for lunch at the Puerto Mag­dalena whale camp, in Mex­ico.

Pel­i­cans and gulls take to the air at the edge of Baja’s Mag­dalena Bay as a fish­ing boat heads for far shores wreathed in morn­ing mist.

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