Now that we are close enough to the whales to be covered by the fine mist they spout, a conversation I had the night before doesn't seem so academic. Shiloh had confessed his desire to touch a whale, while John and I-- teachers from his high school--pooh-poohed the idea. The lagoon is not a petting zoo, we lectured; these are wild animals, not goats or tame rats.
I had spoken as one who peers through binoculars from the beaches and cliffs of California's north coast as the gray whales steam past each winter and spring. Swimming inaccessibly through Pacific swells, they are en route between their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and their calving and breeding lagoons off the coast of Baja California. Now I've traveled nearly 1,500 miles to see them in their southern habitat, much as I've followed salmon to their spawning grounds in a creek near my home. Last night, the notion of touching a whale seemed an interspecies faux pas, about as sensitive as caressing a mating salmon.
The mother and calf leave us far behind. Our ten-dollar, hour-plus ride finished, we motor toward shore and wade to the beach. The workday is nearly over, and we chat with the boatmen.
"These are Mexican whales," declares one.
John, ever the precise biologist, stammers in broken Spanish, "But they feed near Alaska."
"Si," I note, "pero aqui se chingan." (Genteel translation: "But this is where they procreate.")
That breaks the ice, and we are invited to the shack that serves as the boatmen's office and bunkhouse. Over chicken, tortillas, and cans of cold Tecate, we learn that the whale-watching concession is held by our hosts' farming village, 25 miles away. The profit from the mostly foreign tourists who visit the whales every January through March augments the income from the onion, watermelon, and chile harvests. Earnings have funded community projects such as a house for the schoolteacher, and now cover residents' health insurance.
Among the beer-drinking boatmen Luis stands out, quietly sipping his mineral water--an alcoholic who's been dry for four years. His colleagues say he is the best whale-finder in the bunch. He has a personal relationship with one gray, they tell us, whom he has named Maria Mercedes, after a character in a Mexican soap opera, a voluptuous, tough-talking, 18-year-old newspaper vendor in Mexico City. They speculate that this whale has the hots for Luis because she lets his boat approach very close. Take a trip with Luis, they suggest, and you can see Maria Mercedes.
We camp on a dune overlooking water backed by steep desert hills. A couple of times a minute, we hear a deep "phoom" echo through the night, the sound of whales breathing in the bay. Formerly Scammon's Lagoon, named after the whaling captain who discovered it (and nearly exterminated its cetacean population), it's now called Laguna del Ojo de Liebre (Hare's Eye Lagoon) and protected as a national park. The whales numbered some 4,000 when whaling ceased in 1946; last year, when they became the second animal to be removed from the U.S. endangered species list, they were thought to number more than 22,000.
The next morning we board Luis' boat and set out to find Maria Mercedes. Within ten minutes, Luis spots her, recognizing the white blotch on her dorsal fin. He slows the engine, steering in a wide curve to sidle up alongside whale and calf. Maria dives and swims ahead; even from underwater the beating of her flukes makes the water well up in smooth places, which Luis follows. The pair break the surface and we coast alongside them. By now Maria is swimming lazy circles around the boat, coming closer and closer. Even the calf is nearly as long as the skiff, and Maria herself at least twice its length. They are mere feet away, occasionally crossing under the boat.
I realize that no one could touch Maria unless she wanted them to, and my objections to whale-touching melt away. When she edges alongside the boat and exchanges glances with me, I reach over the gunwale and lay my hand on her flank. I expect a crusty surface ridged with barnacles, but my fingers rest on soft, yielding skin, like a chubby, hairless human. My fingers tingle for a while, but what still sizzles in my mind is the eye contact, mammal to mammal, one who'd stayed ashore and one who'd returned to sea.
SETH ZUCKERMAN is a freelance writer in Petrolia, Califirnia.