The town of Guerrero Negro was purportedly named for a sunken ship, the Black Warrior, an American whaling ship that sunk back in the 1850’s. It’s a small town that reminds me of some of the more desolate towns on Indian reservations. There is a casino there, a few restaurants, and little else along the dusty stretch of Highway 1 that runs through town.
The biggest business in town is the saltworks, producing seven million tons of salt per year. According to my friend at the local tour company, 70% of the town’s inhabitants are there for the salt. Ten percent are there because of family ties. And the remaining 20% are there for the same reason I am there…
Laguna Ojo de Liebre is one of three shallow lagoons along the central Pacific coast that are the winter home, breeding ground, and nursery to the Gray Whale at the end of what is considered to be the longest migration of any mammal on earth. The whales take two to three months to migrate from the Arctic to the Baja Peninsula, where they give birth to their young in the shallow, warm, more saline (buoyant) waters of the Baja.
Of all the tour companies in the area, the Moon Guide tells me that Mario’s tours has “created a strong impression,” so I send them an email from Ensenada asking for availability. They respond quickly with options, as well as recommendations for a budget hotel nearby. I am arriving Guerrero Negro after dark, so they assure me it is a safe three-block walk, and there will be someone there in the office to greet me. Again, I worry needlessly that the bus will be late, but I soon learn that unlike the mainland buses, you can just about set your watch to the bus in Baja.
We have about a half hour drive through the salt flats to get to the boat launch. The road is lined with Osprey nests, to the point that they have begun constructing “fake telephone poles” to give them a place to build their nests. The stark contrast between the white of the salt and the cobalt blue sky is blindingly beautiful.
On the bus to the lagoon, I end up sitting next to a professional photographer, Tony, who is fluent in English. We share an engaging conversation about his undercover work as a photograper during the Vietnam War. I decide I am going to follow Tony into the boat, as this is his tenth day straight in a row of visiting the lagoon. I figure he knows what he’s doing. 😉 He tells me to sit in the back near the Captain so I will be lower in the water to “pet” the whales. Although the orientation briefing has stressed that this is a “Whale Watching Tour,” not a “Whale Petting Tour,” there is the real promise of interacting with them as the mama whales push their babies to the surface.
Approaching the lagoon, I notice the dunes that surround the glass-like emerald surface. At first, I think it is more salt, but our guide tells us no, they are just protected dunes. They must be vigilant about keeping these dunes pristine, as any garbage or pollution would negatively impact the whales. We speed across the lagoon, passing wildlife making its home on the barges loaded with salt.
Our guide has told us that whale sightings were “guaranteed.” I wonder how they could make such a claim, until we stop in the middle of the lagoon and our driver slows the engine down to a low idle. That is when I hear it….the thrusting, seething sound of air being blown through water, breaking the surface, first on the left, then out front. Soon, I realize there are at least six water spouts going off within sight. It’s as if the lagoon is “breathing!”
We do a few high speed chases across the channel and have a few close encounters, but no “petting.” I am thinking, “That’s okay, if I don’t get to touch one, it is still an unforgettable day!” Soon, we spot a neighboring boat. They are “petting!” Our driver motors on over closer, and soon we are in range. As unbelievable as it sounds, just as they said, the Mama whale appears to nudge her baby toward the boat, as if this is some sort of “social training” for her newborn!
I am a bit flustered trying to take a photo while touching the baby. Tony shouts at me “PUT DOWN YOUR DAMNED CAMERA AND TOUCH IT!” Okay! I get it! The first time I touch it, I am a bit startled. It’s skin is smooth and much more pliable than I expected, a little like a wet hard boiled egg. There are small tufts of whiskers at intervals on the head, but those too are soft.
But then they come back for a second pass. I am wearing a long sleeved jacket and windbreaker over that, so I am tentative about sticking my arms too far into the water. Then I come to my senses! My sleeves will dry!! That is when I thrust both arms into the water, sleeves and all up to my armpits, and rub them up and down the sides of the baby’s head. I find myself murmuring over and over and over again, “I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you!”
Tony tells me I can’t wash my hands for 48 hours. I don’t know about the hands, but the jacket may never get washed again! 😉
Interesting Trivia about the Gray Whale (From the “Moon Handbook on Baja”)
- It typically takes 2 to 3 months for their migration from the Arctic to Baja Peninsula
- They typically travel around 100 miles per day, always within 1-3 miles of shore
- They are the only whales that feed on the ocean floor, diving to bottom, rolling over on their side to gulp sand, then filter out through baleen plates that act like a strainer.
- Newborns are around 15 ft long, growing to 50 ft as an adult, weighing approx 35 tons.
- Mothers nurse their young for 6 to 8 months, during which time they consume around 50 gallons of milk per day.
- They live to be on average, 50 to 60 years old.
- The Gray whale was given international protection in 1947, but removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
- There are estimated to be 2,000 gray whales living in Laguna Ojo de Liebre
There are estimated to be 2,000 gray whales living in Laguna Ojo de Liebre