The Panguero tried to get my attention from the whale’s nose that was gliding towards our panga. He kept pointing down. I kept brushing him away, wondering why he was trying to distract me from my first contact with a grey whale. I reached out over the boat, trying to elongate my limbs, trying to make the touch arrive that much sooner. My focus was genuine. The excitement was fresh and new. This event was on my top ten list of life goals and it was now within a foot of my extended reach.
The Panguero’s index finger appeared again, within inches of my face, making my eyes cross. Again I brushed him away. I could hear the click of the camera shutters and an “oh, merde!” from the French couple who occupied the ten foot panga with me. The Panguero had stilled the motor, lifting the propellors out of the water as the whale approached. My hand was within inches of the whale’s great snout.
My left hand was reaching out, my right was tucked in close to my body, holding my camera. I dared not to take a photograph for fear of scaring the whale away. I’m not sure that there was logic in that thought at the time I had it, but I wanted the experience more than a cellulose memory. The Panguero finally had had enough of my refusal to pay attention. As my hand reached for the whale, the Panguero grabbed the back of my head and forced me to look down into the water. The surface of the water was about a foot from my face. It was very clear. And the temperature was not unpleasant as I had been dragging my hand in it most of the morning. But what I saw just beneath the surface was the most amazing thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life. About a foot and a half beneath the surface of the very clear water was a big eye. A big eye that was looking up at me, watching me reach for her child …
The boat was a ten foot panga, a rowboat with oars and an outboard motor. It was ten feet in length and the mother whale was probably forty-five and she was quietly laying, sprawled, attentively watching, a foot and a half beneath me. In my excitement, I have to admit, I jumped up. There was no reason for it, it was just a spontaneous action on my part. Both the mother and child swam gently away, creating not even so much as a splash against the shell that protected me. Within an instant they were gone. Within an instant the experience became my own, and theirs.
The night before there had been a celebration on the playa of Bahia Magdelena. The entire village had come out for the annual blessing of the grey whales. The celebration began just before sunset with a Catholic Mass said for the whales and a blessing of the bay where they came to give birth and spend the winter months before making the northbound commute to their summer swimming grounds. Every person in the community participated in the celebration in some way. There were horns and trumpet bands and children dancing, a queen was crowned and homemade fireworks twirled and spun and exploded among the crowd. Along the perimeter of the festival, food tents circled the spectators, encasing them in the smells of fresh tortillas, tacos, menudo, seafood, churros and other Mexican fast food specialties.
In combination there was something magical about this night, this celebration, the whales swimming in the bay … As if they existed no where else on the planet, for anyone else except those of us who chose to travel here to see them in person, to experience them, to befriend them. It did not seem important that the whales had a life outside of the bay, that they had things to do and places to go beyond the secluded refuge that was created here for them.