The Friendly Gray Whales Of San Ignacio Lagoon

As divers, we’re lucky enough to experience things that most people will never be able to share, from swimming eye-to-eye with humpback whales in South Africa to marveling at the unique ballet of a dozen manta rays in Indonesia. Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon, however, is one of the few places on Earth where it’s possible to come face-to-face with one of the ocean’s most impressive creatures without getting wet.

Located in Baja California Sur, San Ignacio Lagoon reflects mirrored shades of jade green and cobalt blue. Its still waters are a stark contrast to the burnt shades of the surrounding desert, and at its edges the land is a barren division between the lagoon and the vast, curved expanse of the Mexican sky. At first glance, San Ignacio seems virtually uninhabited, save for the rural fishing villages dotting its shores. But things change between December and April when the lagoon serves as a temporary home for thousands of gray whales, a species that has used San Ignacio as a mating and calving ground for as long as anyone can recall. Every year, these whales undertake an incredible round trip of some 13,000 miles to reach San Ignacio from the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic, a migration that is believed to be the longest of any mammal.

There are three calving lagoons along the Baja California coast, of which San Ignacio is the most pristine. Several years ago, I saw it for myself as part of a whale-watching liveaboard that departed from San Diego, traveling the length of the Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez. We arrived with the dawn, our entry perfectly timed with the tide to allow us passage over the sandbanks that guard at the lagoon’s entrance. These banks are treacherous, and in the past afforded the whales protection from all but the bravest whalers. It took several hours to enter the lagoon itself, and in that time we saw several gray whales, including the spectacle of a leviathan mating session. Once at anchor in San Ignacio, the only sounds were the waters lapping against our ship’s hull, the occasional squall of a passing gull, and the sharp exhalation of the whales as they broke the surface.

San Ignacio is quite different from any other whale-watching destination, simply because it’s the only place in the world where whales actively seek human contact. In 1976, the first reports of so-called ‘friendly’ whales emerged, and since then the phenomenon has become well known. In San Ignacio, gray whales seem to be attracted by the sound of small boat engines, and come close enough to allow humans to touch them. Amazingly, mother whales even encourage their calves to make contact, pushing them towards the boats with their giant calloused heads. It was to see these friendly whales for ourselves that we came to San Ignacio, and that afternoon one of the local fishermen motored out to our vessel in his tiny fishing panga to pick us up. Once in the panga (the Mexican version of a skiff or tender), we were just inches from the waterline and well within reach of any friendly whales we might encounter.

As we set off into the middle of the lagoon, the sun blazed brightly in the sky, transforming the water into shimmering fragments of shattered silver. Every few minutes, the hazy exhalation of a distant whale smudged the horizon, and our anticipation levels soon reached fever pitch. The whales seemed to be as curious about us as we were about them, and quite often the placid water just a few feet from the boat would give way as one of them spy-hopped nearby. Their heads were huge, like great monoliths carved from granite and mottled with patches of silver and charcoal. Their eyes were disproportionately small, and yet they seemed to be watching us just as intently as we were watching them. There was no fear or caution, just an infectious curiosity on both sides. Surrounded by these gentle giants, it was hard to believe that they once fought ancient whalers so aggressively that they were known as ‘devil fish.’

Soon, our skipper cut the engines and the vibration of the propellers gave way to silence. He had spotted a mother and calf just a short distance away; now, it was up to the whales to decide whether or not they wanted to interact. He began slapping the palm of his hand on the water, a sound that apparently appeals to the grays’ inquisitive nature and often encourages them to overcome a mother’s natural wariness and approach the boat. The two whales disappeared quite suddenly, and I assumed that meant they didn’t want to interact — until they resurfaced directly alongside the panga.

At first, the mother whale positioned herself between us and her calf, presumably to make sure that we posed no threat before allowing her baby to get closer. She hung, suspended at the surface on her side, gazing intently at the humans in the boat above her. I couldn’t believe her trust, especially as humans hunted her species almost to extinction just a few decades ago. Our guide stretched out to touch the whale, and when she didn’t move away, we were allowed to do the same. We waited as patiently as we could as each person reverently made contact. It was as if a spell had been cast over the boat; no one spoke, other than to exclaim at the sheer wonder of being permitted to make such intimate contact with one of nature’s most majestic creatures.

When it was my turn, I reached out and laid my hand on the whale’s head. I could feel the callouses of barnacles and whale lice rubbing against my palm, and the silky smoothness of the whale’s skin beneath them. It was the first time I had seen eye-to-eye with a whale, and the emotion of doing so caught me entirely by surprise. After some time, the mother slowly sank beneath the surface, and pushed her baby towards the panga. Like all babies, the little whale wanted to play, and joyously rubbed itself against the boat while basking in the adulation of its strange visitors. The two whales stayed with us for quite some time, before eventually tiring of the attention and sinking back into the depths from which they had come.

I was still smiling that evening as we sat out on the deck in the darkness, watching the gulls circling the mast above us like ghosts against a diamond-studded sky. All around us, the night echoed with the sounds of San Ignacio’s whales surfacing and exhaling, a sighing song that remains for me the definition of serenity.

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