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Whale watching gone scary in Baja California

Whale watching gone scary in Baja California

Below is an edited excerpt from an article I wrote for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1988 about a disconcerting encounter with the whales in Laguna Ojo de Liebre in Baja California. My husband and I were in a guided 17-foot panga that was also occupied by eight other tourists. A baby whale bumped into our boat, the mother didn’t appear to be happy about it and what ensued was frightening, to say the least.

I'd been whale watching many, many times, but never had I had an experience like the one you're about to hear. We were in Laguna Ojo de Liebre in Baja California with six other people and our panga driver Martin. In this particular lagoon the whales are usually close to shore, so Martin only motored a short distance in the calm waters before he cut the engine, allowing us to float quietly among the whales. Occasionally, he would maneuver us with one oar towards the cetacean of his choice. 

Our first fifteen minutes were spent staring at the back of a large gray that barely moved and I began to worry that our expedition was going to turn out to be a big bore, but before long we were surrounded by eight or nine mothers and their calves floating on the surface. The sound of their spouts filled the air.

One particular calf, so young that the tips of his flukes were still curled, seemed excited by our presence. The baby raised its head out of the water—a behavior called spyhopping—presumablyto get a better look at these strange creatures bundled up in clothes and life vests. In response to this display of curiosity, Martin paddled our boat so we could get a closer look, but still there was a respectable difference. The calf spyhopped time after time and rolled and frolicked through the water, extending flippers and flukes. Then it settled down.

Martin returned his paddle to the floor of the boat and we drifted with the current while the mother and calf slowly, and I mean slowly, swam along. They swam, we drifted, the gap between us closed.

We reached a point where we were approximately 50 feet from the pair and still drifting towards them, their heads pointing in our direction. This made me nervous. I knew one should never be in the path of the whale. I assumed, however, that Martin knew what he was doing. Why I thought this was foolish on my part as by this time Martin was stretched out in the panga with his back to the whales.

This is when things got exciting.

Suddenly the calf left its mother’s side. The baby swam under our boat and bumped the propeller on the outboard with its back. The boat lurched and the engine banged to one side. A large thump resounded through the wooden hull. Hands reached out to grab the rails, the seats, whatever was available to grab on to as all eyes stared at the baby gray clearly visible directly under the boat’s outboard.

Our adventurous newborn who looked so small next to its mother now looked so big underneath our boat. He was probably 3 feet longer than our 17-foot craft and weighed approximately a ton a foot.

The now agitated whale quickly circled around the back of our boat. I looked over the port side of our open panga and I could see the calf just inches below the surface heading directly for us like a torpedo. He dove and flew under the boat, circled around again and made another high-speed pass beneath our hull.

To make matters worse, a very large area of water where the mother had last been seen had become a cauldron of boiling water amid which no part of the 35- to 40-foot whale was visible.

After the calf’s second pass we could no longer see either whale, only the churning water.

I clung to my husband’s life vest waiting...waiting for the angry mother to charge us and with her mighty flukes catapult us into the air. Or for the baby to once again make us the target of another of its missile-like passes.

But just as suddenly as it started the water instantaneously quieted down. The whales were nowhere to be seen.

My heart was pounding, my hand still gripped my husband’s life jacket, but when I turned to look at Martin I saw he was laughing.

I don’t know what Martin was doing during the disturbance, but he was definitely laughing now. Wondering how he could imagine this to be a funny situation I asked if he thought the whale was angry. “No, he was only playing with us,” he replied in Spanish. I was amazed. I found this hard to believe. “Does this happen often?” I queried. Martin smilingly answered, “Yes.”

I still can’t believe the whale was playing with us. It seems more plausible to me that the curious calf came over for a closer look and accidentally bumped into our outboard, and things happened from there.

It’s impossible to know what a wild animal is thinking but I’m as sure as anyone can be that the mother was concerned for the safety of her baby. I’ve related the incident to several people who are familiar with gray whale behavior and all but one felt this to be a unique and unusual experience; that normally when small skiffs are approached by mothers and calves all movements are slow and calm. Quite the opposite of what we encountered.

The reactions of the people in the boat were mixed. Most were frightened to varying degrees, but one man remained calm enough during the event to take pictures and was now assuring his quivering girlfriend that “the whale wouldn’t hurt us.”

Obviously he was unaware of the fact that the female gray got her nickname “devil fish” from the aggression she displays when her young is threatened.