Day 2: Chores
We have a small 1-bedroom AirBNB house rented for 5 nights in Guerrero Negro. It’s on a dusty street with a patchwork of vacant lots, but that’s what makes it a true Baja experience, since that seems to be the structure of most towns. Guerrero Negro appears a bit more extreme in this dimension, with some really nice houses sitting next to rubble piles, and street dogs lying in the shade of BMWs; perhaps it has something to do with the relatively-high economic activity generated by the giant salt operation (the town was created by and for the salt company), or maybe the whale-tourism is a factor as well.
One great feature that makes me truly feel how Mexican towns are structured differently than US towns is the “abarrotes” that is literally 50 steps from the front door of our house. The ability to just “pop over” for anything (water, bread, cookies, an onion, 6 eggs, 7 eggs, however many eggs you want) and be back in a minute is a surprisingly magical experience. And it’s not just a lucky placement: there generally seems to be a small store like this every couple blocks. I guess it’s like the “corner store” of early 20th century America, or maybe the “bodegas” that still exist in New York and other dense cities? I get why economics has resulted in a shift to larger, fewer, but more-efficient store-geographies, but it’s nice to be reminded that there are big qualitative losses than come with those quantitative economic gains.
Of course the tiny “abarrotes” doesn’t have everything (though it comes surprisingly close!), so I also walked half a mile over to a bigger store (supermercado) to get us set up with provisions that we could cook meals with in our kitchen-with oven. Today, mostly a giant pile of vegetables to roast, just as we did in Rosarito, in an attempt to make up for our weeks of vegetable-deficiency in one fell swoop.
Rett did a bunch of laundry in the kitchen sink, that we then hung up to dry across the living room (hanging outside in the dusty wind like everyone else does didn’t seem like a great solution).
And we booked a whale-watching tour for the next day!
Day 3: Ballena Day!
It’s here! The day to go see (and be seen by) the gray whales (ballena gris) spending the winter giving birth, and mating, in Laguna Ojo de Liebre. And, if we’re lucky, to experience them making physical contact with us, their warm-blooded but land-walking extremely-distant cousins.
Mario’s Tours, that runs out of a restaurant on the edge of town, was good enough to come pick us up from near our place and bring us over to the restaurant for a presentation (in English and Spanish) at their “whale museum”. Then it was into the minibus with three other couples (two American, one Mexican) to tear off down the washboard dirt roads leading to and through the salt company’s property, until we reached a very primitive dock near the end of a long causeway.
We got our life-jackets on, and the eight of us boarded the “panga”, essentially a large wooden rowboat with five benches, and a motor on the back. A boat so small that an adult gray whale might mistake it for one of their babies. Our Spanish-only captain opened up the throttle, slamming us across the choppy waves at high speeds, with the water just below eye-level, and each collision with the concrete-solid water vibrating through our feet. Yes, this was certainly going to be the intimate experience we were promised!
After four or five miles speeding past salt barges and along the line of salt-white sand dunes that separates the lagoon from the open ocean, we neared the mouth of the lagoon and the captain slowed the boat. In the quieter calm, we were thrilled to see action on the water almost immediately. Whales? No, a couple of dolphins cresting above the waves! Then, behind us: a whale? No, a sea lion, swimming happily through the open water, throwing its head above the waves, something we had never witnessed, despite all the sea lions we have seen coming down the Pacific Coast.
And then, a whale! Maybe two. Their backs cresting above the waterline, some spray from their blowholes fogging the air. Then over there, another waves a fin above the water. We wait for them to reappear, but they don’t seem to surface again near us. Other blowhole sprays are spotted in the distance, so the captain fires of the motor again to head in that direction. We see another rising back, but even with nine pairs of eyes scanning the horizon, can’t find where he resurfaces again. But over there is something! It’s a rising tail, curving back into the water, but that means a deep dive, so at least we know not to wait for a reappearance in that spot. The motor comes on again to continue the search.
This is how it goes for nearly an hour. We see so many whales, but it feels like they’re running from us, teasing us, and not going to give us that intimate experience that we feel like we were promised. Even though we were never promised such a thing. Echoing in my head was our guide’s statement: “I guarantee you will see whales, but I don’t guarantee you will touch a whale”. I think most other places where you can go whale-watching would not even make the first guarantee, so it feels stupid to be upset about the second non-guarantee.
I try to guide my mind to the place it was in years ago when I visited Yellowstone National Park. There, I marveled at the feeling of simply sharing an environment with grizzly bears, wolves, and moose; actually seeing those animals felt unnecessary, and maybe could have even reduced the sense of wild wonder generated by my imagination. And here in the lagoon, we had seen plenty of animals. We just hadn’t seen them in the Instagram-content, trick-pony, make-your-friends-jealous sort of way that we expected, which was selfishly more about us than about the whales anyway.
But “petting a whale” was the hook that had pulled us into Mexico, and helped keep us motivated over 500 miles of hot sun, headwinds, and cactus thorns. The good news is that weeks ago we declared to each other that the hook was no longer what was actually pulling us; Baja had already given us an excess of joy, and we had plenty of non-whale reasons to keep rolling forward. But despite all those rationalizations, it was still a challenge to not feel disappointed. A challenge to live my own advice that I sometimes superciliously admonish Rett with: “if you focus with disappointment on all that don’t have, it blinds you to all that you do have!” And we had whales all around us!
Nevertheless, before we even got on the boat, we had already agreed that with our unlimited time, with the importance it had held in getting us to this point, and with the relatively inexpensive tour ($50 USD per person), we would try to take another tour if luck wasn’t with us the first time. So it was probably time to start thinking about when we could go again.
One of the whale-backs we saw did not immediately disappear. It went below the water, but the enormous bulk of the animal could still be seen just below the surface. It was very close to us, and coming closer, maybe thanks to Rett’s singing.
And then it happened. Everything we weren’t promised. He raised his nose above the water, and came gently rubbing right along the side of the boat. It’s difficult to know what he was feeling, but cries of glee and excitement came from most of the humans.
For eight wondrous minutes, we enjoyed each others’ company. He crossed back and forth directly under our boat, so that we could look both port and starboard and see parts of him on either side. He held open his cavernous mouth to show us his white baleen hanging like well-groomed Spanish Moss from his upper jaw. He rolled on his side, to look directly at Rett with his unusually-human eye from just below the water, and then immediately raised up so she could rub his nose. He splashed us with rainbow-making droplets from his blowhole. He even got a kiss from Rett.
I was snapping photos the whole time, giving physical priority to the people more drawn to animal-interactions than I am, and annoyingly frustrated that I couldn’t find the cloth I’d brought to dry the spray from my camera lens that was washing out the photos (frustration is not what I should have been feeling in that moment, and becoming annoyed at that frustration did not help). But once everyone had gotten the time that they wanted, I figured I should get down and feel the whale myself, since it would be silly not to close the final inches between our kindred spirits, after we had both migrated south along parallel paths for many months and thousands of miles.
And I was completely unprepared for the feelings that contact would bring. He felt…comforting. Firm and rubbery, but with a warm softness. Almost exactly like one of the 1.5-inch thick rubber gym mats that we would do “tumbling” on in 1st grade. Or maybe a wrestling mat. And through that barnacle-scarred flesh, he pushed upon me a feeling of calm and relaxation that I have rarely felt in our months we have been crossing the unknown. For my cold logical heart it wasn’t quite the “life-changing experience” that it is for many, but it was at least life-affirming, and it continues to surprise me how, in moments of minor stress, I can roll my mind back to that moment, to that touch, and instantly feel my heart-rate slow and my breathing relax.
Once we had all gotten our fill, our whale swam over to a nearby panga from another tour, spent a little time with them (but not nearly as much as he did with us, ha!), and then disappeared under the water to be back with his brethren. We spent another half-hour scanning the waters, but it seemed that even the distant sightings we’d had earlier were diminished, and, wholly satisfied, we cranked the motor back up and headed back to shore.
Thank you to Mario’s Tours for bringing us an experience we obviously could not have done on our own. Thank you to our fellow tourists who shared and enhanced the joy of our experience. Thank you to Jayaram and Aparna for putting the idea of Baja and the whales into Rett’s mind. Thank you to Rett for being the first to latch onto that hook and for pulling me along with her. And finally, thank you to the whales, for being active participants in this unbelievable cross-species communication. This was a day that I won’t need to return to this journal to remember.