“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and nothing to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet… I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.” Herman Melville 1819-1891.
How lovely is that! Really, you must read Moby Dick again. I accessed it, free of charge, on the computer, but I want to order a hard copy on my return to the States. The writing calls out for margin notes.
Melville had it right. Life on the sea, away from the demands of work, the computer, the phone, TV and radio has been pure bliss. Tuesday’s Illinois Primary came and went. Had I been home, I would have been glued to the news. As it was, I didn’t miss anything. I didn’t “find myself going grim about the mouth.”
Where to begin? In the previous blog, we left Rick’s (Ricardo Cota’s / The Rice and Beans Restaurant) in San Ignacio and we were picked up by the Kuyima van which took us some 45 miles or so to Laguna de San Ignacio, one of three, Gray whale mating, birthing, and nursery lagoons on the Baja peninsula.
The 45-mile road to the lagoon is paved half way. The final miles are seriously washboarded. Like any dirt road in Colorado, the driving surface is corrugated, and so the drivers move away from the corrugations and towards the shoulder. The drivers move incrementally and soon the one-lane road is one and a half lanes and then two. Finally, in desperation, the driver leaves the “road” entirely and strikes a new path parallel to the original. In several places, the original road was at least three lanes wide with one or two parallel roads. The road is not for the faint of heart. I made a point of relaxing my jaw so I wouldn’t crack my tooth enamel.
Kuyima is the name of our solar and wind-powered camp. We stayed in cabins measuring 8 x 10 – just big enough. Sleeping bags were provided as well as life vests. The food was excellent: rice, beans, fish, chicken, fruit and salad.
Fresh water was available but is not on tap. All water comes from a salination plant. We had shower stalls, but no shower heads. Prior to “showering,” we went to the solar heater and filled a three-gallon bucket with water. We then took the bucket to the stall and did what we could with the water that we had. I was surprised that I could do so much with so little. It was an important finger-wag for those of us who take long, hot showers and don’t think twice. ( I take long showers, but in a sort of “cap-‘n-trade” agreement with myself, I balance my water-waste with walking to the market and carrying my groceries home. I could use some moral fiber.)
Laguna San Ignacio’s level of environmental protection is more restrictive than that set by the Mexican government in the larger lagoons. The whale watching portion of the lagoon is relatively small, and the number of boats is regulated. When we entered the site in our 24-foot panga, a watchman recorded our entry time and the number of our boat as well as the names of our guide and pilot. We were only allowed in the area for one and a half hours.
The rules are strict. We can slowly motor to within 90 feet of a whale. We are not allowed to intercept or approach a whale. Friendly whales can approach us. It is all up to the whales. We are not to touch near the eyes, blowhole, fins, or tails. We may touch their backs and their mouths. The whales are “pleased” to have us scratch… as we would be pleased to be scratched if we were plagued by barnacles and sea lice. Sometimes their pleasure is so great that the whales open their mouths and invite you to scratch their tongue. Our guide assures us that if the whale’s mouth happens to close when our arm is in their mouth, we can easily remove our arm. I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to test this.
We splash water to invite the whales to come our way. They either come or they don’t. If they do come, it is easy to touch them. The babies are as big as our boat; the mothers are twice as big. Their skin feels thinner than leather or Naugahyde – it feels more like vinyl. The vinyl has a lot of give – it is squishy – a lot like an over-stuffed couch that when you sit on it, you cannot get out of on your own.
You may note that I put quotations around the word pleased. How do we know that they are pleased? I think their repeat behaviors say something: the friendly whales return again. They are relaxed – rolling over and exposing their belly. We are tickled to see some of the mothers pushing their babies towards the boats. We laugh, if we entertain the babies, could it be that the mothers are using us as baby sitters?
The months that the babies spend in the lagoon are golden. Predators take 30 percent of the babies when they migrate north. Most baby whales are lost to Orcas; a smaller number, who are weak and or wounded, are lost to Great white sharks. The babies are so curious and trusting. I feel a personal connection. I don’t like to think about those who will die.
The population of Gray whales is estimated to number 22,000. The males stick around for breeding purposes during January and February, but by March the males have left. The mothers and babies stay another month. The babies take on weight (drinking about 200 liters of milk a day) while the mothers teach them the ways of the world.
Laguna de San Ignacio was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government in 1988 and as a U.N. World Heritage site in 1994. If you have an interest, you might want to learn how local people plus the National Resources Defense Fund worked jointly to stop Mitsubishi from building a salt works project which would have spelled disaster to the ecology of the lagoon environment. Read about the activism that saved the local environment at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/09/nrdc-celebrate. More recently, the local people have been hand-harvesting the high-mineral salt and selling it as a gourmet salt at a premium price. GO LOCAL!
As it is, the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance has easements of 125,000 acres of land surrounding the lagoon and increased protection on an additional 100,000 acres. In addition to whaling expeditions, the knowledgeable staff took us on a daily tour – each day we visited one of the four distinct eco-systems: the lagoon, the desert, the salt flats and the mangrove swamps. One day we bicycled to the oyster farm. The villages surrounding the lagoon rely on the three-month whale-watching season for employment.. Fishing, lobstering, scalloping and oyster farming round out the economy. It is a harsh land with little rain. The fog and the mist off the sea supply enough water for the coyotes and pack rats – and in the spring a surprising number of flowers.