People arrive here for an obvious
purpose. Although they will insist they came purely with the hope of touching a
whale another deeper desire begins to surface almost immediately. I don’t
have enough fingers on both hands to count the shared conversations, even
before that hoped for cetacean contact, that express a self-reflection, a
meditation, an Indian or Buddhist philosophy or a profound life story that is a
miracle of serendipitous events; all personal visions to quietly want to change
the world. I doubt that the Law of Attraction would have figured high on the
list of essential reading for the likes of the NASA scientist or astrophysicist
who were here, although for the artists and musicians perhaps, but not at
all for that black gold pipeline engineer, looking to retire as a conservation
volunteer as a way to repair the contradiction of his lifetime. However, we are
all forgiven for talking about the 50 shades of Gray we
encounter on every journey…..
The lagoon is a quite place most
of the time where there are minimal external distractions except for the wind.
Initially for the city arrivals the aloneness of the salt flats might
feel disconcerting because for the duration of the 4-day trip, they become a
mere blip on their electronic connections, (even if Verizon sold them a roaming
package for all occasions). There is something totally different about this
environment. All systems are down, except for the natural ones. The catalyst is
waiting to happen!
Last week, amongst others,
the Orca network group, headed by ´Howwie´ Balcomb and his partner Susan have
descended. If you didn’t know them better you might call them the ´tree huggers´
of the whale world but they are people completely involved with a passion for a
cause that isn’t just about Orcas. They have all come here with a sublime
expectation to draw from an effect, a memory, even enlightenment from this
natural resource; contact with the Gray Whale in the lagoon they inhabit for
the few sacred weeks that they are here. Actually whether they know it yet or
not, this is the beginning of their new life, a second wind, an opportunity to
reconfigure and log on again. Imagine how must it be to find yourself suddenly
exposed to the silence of a significantly reduced external environmental with
the major exception of the sound of the rhythm and depth of something powerful
breathing in the open space around? No-one guarantees that something will
happen but something always does.
Have you ever had to adopt a
particular orientation toward an experience? Have you ever come across the
notion of stilling the mind? The words, ´Nature has a right to exist, persist,
regenerate and evolve.´ come to my mind. (part of a statement in the Ecuadorian
constitution drawn up in the late 1990´s because of a massive popular revolt
against the decimation of their natural life source, the mangroves). We allow
social dysfunction to dominate our lives most of the time and continue to live
in conflict with ourselves as a result. Oscar Wilde phrased it perfectly. “We
know the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
The thought of exploring our own internal worlds, other than the
world beneath the surface of the waves and its stream of graceful giants slowly
moving in a shallow haze of algae green, probably wasn’t originally on
the cards, but the intensity of a glance from a baby Gray hypnotizes everyone.
What I sense in the individuals
who arrive here is an unspoken desire for a bigger hope for themselves and
something powerfully different for this world.
So, for those who’ve been touched, after
it all, what do you think?
Did you come and call the whales
or did you come because the whales had already called for you?
While the whales are the main attraction at San Ignacio Lagoon, there is so much more to see and do when not on the water.
Many people do not realize that the lagoon is a self- contained eco-system, unique in the world, and home to countless creatures both big and small that most visitors walk right past and never see.
At low tide the coyotes hunt at the water line and if they are fortunate they might dig up a tasty eel for their evening dinner. Baby octopus hide under rock ledges waiting for human fingers to find them and pull them out, and occasionally we even see the tiniest of newborn lobsters.
A few short steps from Campo Cortez we dig up fresh chocolate clams and scallops, eating them right out of the shell with a bit of fresh lime.
Shucking Scallops at Low Tide
This is life at campo Cortez, a place full of beautiful people in love with their home and the creatures they share it with.
And They are Great Raw
When you are there, stop to watch the sunset and realize you are surrounded by nature as it has always been intended
“Grrrt! Grrrt!” I’m in the climax of my
jungle adventure dream, crossing a river with a wounded animal in my arms, an
indigenous boy by my side and we’re trying to head to the nearest village. A
big bird appears from the jungle and we start following it.
“Grrrrt!” I wake up and realize there is a
huge raven right outside my camper. It’s 5 a.m. I’m trying to get back to my
adventure dream but the raven insists: “GRRRRRT!” So I give up and get up. “What
is it?!” I open the curtain to witness the most amazing, mesmerizing
start to a sunrise that I’ve ever seen in my life. The oranges, purples and
pinks accompany me into an exceptionally deep meditation. My morning
meditations have become my ultimate refuge and source of energy and inner peace
in this intense place.
The day starts apparently in an ordinary
manner, but I feel strange, as if that raven wanted to prepare me for
something. We have an unforgettable morning whale watching which simply cannot
be described by words. All of a sudden we, the 10 strangers in the boat, have
an experience so great and special to share that all we can do is smile and
cry. No words come out, nor are needed. “Magic and goodness prevail”, I think.
At noon I hear Priscila, one of our ladies
in the kitchen, running hysterically to the kitchen. She is crying in a way
that immediately switches me into an intuitive survival mode. The raven and my
meditation come to my mind as I run to her. Gisela, her 4 year old daughter is
choking with a candy in her throat. I remember an image from my childhood, my
mother with her hand literally inside my sister’s throat, pulling out the coin
she’d just accidentally swallowed. M-T and I go through an emergency plan as we
run to the camper area where the employees stay. Thank God no action was needed
– Gisela was already fine. After about a half an hour of shiatsu and emotional
support Priscila, Gisela’s mother, had calmed down, too.
On the second whale watch Shawna, our
extremely funny joke cracking guest from Washington took care of entertaining
us and the whales. She spends her days teaching Mexican teenager immigrants in
Arizona. In the middle of laughing and singing everything from Christmas songs
to the Sound of Music, Edelweiss and Happy Birthday, another guest accidently fell
over her. I couldn’t first see the pain in her from all the laughter and
singing, and it wasn’t until during happy hour that we noticed her totally
swollen ankle. “Once it took me a week to notice my hip was broken!” she
laughed with a hibiscus-margarita (that was her invention, by the way) in her
hand and ice over her ankle.
I crashed into bed emotionally exhausted,
thanking God for saving little Gisela’s life, for these amazing guests we get
to attend every year, and for the whales bringing so much joy to our lives. No
ravens around my camper.
A less traditional
method for weather forecasting might warrant extending a wet index finger out
to the elements to determine wind speed, direction and temperature including
wind chill factor. However here, so you people in cyberspace have an idea about
what´s happening weather wise so you chose your travel clothes wisely, this
reality show demands we actually formally monitor all those effects the correct
way with instrumentation, every day, three times a day.
that isn’t precise. The whale watching environment determines everything and
being much the wiser for seasonal exposure, this is what actually happens….
When the sound of the
´palapa´ dining room door bangs open and closed thumping at the ineffective
stone doorstop at regular intervals, or the wind whistles tryingly through that
same tightly woven palm-leafed palapa roof late at night almost portending a
blustery morning, the wind gauge at that point might measure at least 12 knots.
In the early morning
warming their hands around their coffee mugs a small crowd musters for outside
yoga just before sunrise. I´m there of course, to teach the class, unashamedly
warming my fingers around my coffee mug thermos, wearing a black woolen balaclava
and windbreaker, and about to jumpstart the day. Someone aptly labeled it
“7-Layer Yoga”, as if it were a new trend. Bikram would shudder. I describe it
simply as waking up to the wind and the breath. Despite lacking an external
heat source we still heat up!
Cuco - Boat Captain
After we finish and a
little after breakfast if it were finger to the air, it would probably read
about 64 degrees Fahrenheit (or 8 degrees Celsius) on the precision
instrumentation. An east wind is blowing about 6 mph and there´s not a single
cloud as far as the horizon. Refugio, ´Cuco´, one of our ´pangueros´, is moving
around the panga boats wearing a heavy waterproof jacket thick enough to
survive the north Atlantic, his sunglasses reflecting water. Hmmm?!As a ´Lagoon-ian, let’s say, everything
indicates that he might know something we don’t.
Roberto - Boat Captain
I´ve learnt to follow
his example by now and don a polar fleece over my orange Staff T-shirt and blur
into the guests for a moment until I pull my own equally waterproof yellow
storm weather jacket over my head and balaclava. I really stand out now,
strikingly yellow on blue. By the time the groups have organized themselves and
we are loading the pangas, I´m sweating again, this time in the sun. That fine
red line of mercury could easily be reading a mean 78 degrees by now.
Heading Out - to see whales
I pull my balaclava
up tight over my cap to cover my ears and neck. It’s a 10 minute ride over the
flattening sea. The wind picks up as we gain speed and pass Punta Piedra to
enter the “zone”. The boat spins in half a circle, drops speed and comes almost
to a halt as the radio breaks the silence and Roberto, our ´panguero´, responds
to a call that directs him to our first friendly whale of the day. The wind
drops, it’s hot again and Roberto peels off his jacket and returns to layer one
Paco - Boat Captain
Leaning heavily over
the side of the panga I dip my arms down as close to the water as I can reach
and clap and, ´woop´ idyllically imagining that through its mystical green
depths the resonance of those sounds might perhaps reach all 278 of the Gray
whales that inhabit the lagoon at this point. When a huge mama whale approaches
pushing her calf towards us she sends a circle of bubbles up as she exhales and
the whole boat heaves with her movement. Her calf heaves itself over her back
playfully and rolls one of its innocent eyes to scrutinize us and meets our
wonder. Mama raises her head and makes a strange guttural hissing sound as she
begins her blow.
Valentin - Boat Captain & Guide
I´m yellow above the
blue now, leaning almost parallel to the water on the opposite side of the panga
to where almost every other person is reaching down towards her. Every camera
lens points in her direction as the stare from her single left eye penetrates
curiously and deeply through us. I wonder what she can possibly feel being met
with sunglass darkened smiles. On the downwind side of her whale breath her
exhale baptizes us with a heavy rain. At that moment, as the residual droplets
that have misted up the glass of all our lenses puts everyone momentarily on
pause, the frontline cameras drop their guard.
Absurdly a thought
about the right weather gear crosses my mind. A finger to the wind could never
have forecast this encounter.
Our guests often ask me, "How come
can you receive a new group just a few hours after the current group has left
the camp?" The answer is, planning & coordination, great team
work and very high energy and stress level. I’ll share with you how
the “change of the group” day for each of us actually is.
I. Catalina, Ceci, Elsa and Pedro wake up at
4:20 a.m. and start preparing the packed lunch to be served on the plane, both
for the group leaving the camp and for the new group. Usually this means preparing
around 120 burritos. After that they start preparing the breakfast for our 25+
guests, serve it and wash the dishes.
II. Cuco wakes up at 5:30 am to help with the
kitchen and then drives the guests in a bus to the airport, accompanies the
group during the 2 hour flight to Ensenada, meets the new group in Ensenada,
feeds both groups with the sandwiches prepared earlier on in the day, flies
back from Ensenada to San Ignacio Lagoon with the new group and brings them on
the bus to the camp in the early afternoon.
III. After the group has left the camp, our
kitchen team starts cleaning up the 15 cabins and 3 tents one by one. Priscila
washes by hand the 30+ sheets, pillow cases and aprons. After that follows the
cleaning of bathrooms and showers, and once finished, the kitchen staff hurries
up cleaning the fish or scallop for dinner. When the new group arrives around 4
p.m. the margaritas, chips and freshly made salsas are ready to be served.
IV. Meanwhile, Maldo drives for 2 hours
leaving early in the morning for Santa Rosalia to buy all the food supplies for
the new group.
V. M-T and I wake up at 6 am, get the palapa ready for breakfast, serve
the breakfast to our guests and say goodbye to the group that leaves around 8
am. I make the cabin plan for the new group and check their special diets.
Sometimes we have up to 19 guests with special diets in one group; my respects
to the cooks´ imagination! Then we start cleaning up the palapa and separate
the trash produced in 5 days. Thanks to our Eco Certificate we separate and
recycle about 95% of all our trash with no need to deliver anything to the
garbage dump. After having cleaned up and reorganized the lifejackets and
rubber boots I do some office work; sales inventory, weather report, and send
off the guide reports. If we have time, we wash our laundry and clean up the
camper we´re staying in. Then at 1 pm we put our special staff shirts on and
head to the airport to receive the new group with drinks, snacks and a big
smile, and there's nothing fake about that smile. We love this!
stir: the start of a day at the lagoon
The mudflats glisten
in the low morning light as I turn over at the alarm to reset it for the 3rd
time perhaps. It first sounds at 5.40am when it is still dark but those few
precious extra minutes before the sun touches the horizon, lingering between
half sleep and half awake, are the luxury I choose to meet the dawn in my own
I inhale and exhale
slowly for a minute or two to calm my pulse and hold my breath, and from my top
bunk camper window, watch the changing colors outside, a beautiful contrast of
clouds and reflections. Another couple of minutes pass by and I repeat the
process again, each time extending the breath-hold a little more observing the
thoughts that cross my mind.
I´m a freediver as
well as one of the camp guides here and each day as we all revel in clearly the
most intimate contact with an animal you are ever likely to have, I´m reminded
of each other life altering experience, of every privileged encounter I have
had underwater on my own, dancing amongst giants.
Although as part of
the marine mammal protection act in this reserve as well as in Scammons Lagoon
and Magdalena Bay, it´s forbidden to dive with the Gray whales, and even then
only a very small section of the lagoon is within limits for whale-watching. In
order to enter the area each guest receives a paper bracelet for each day that
they enter the reserve, from the Secretary for Marine Resources and Natural
Protected Areas (SEMARNAT), which is included as part of the Camp Cortez fee.
In addition to this the San Ignacio community itself has instigated its own
system of monitoring for who comes in and out of the area, and how many boats
there can be at any one time. It´s perfect.
Being a guide here is perhaps
an Overture to the song of the humpbacks I´ve felt resonate through me at
different depths, or the resident Whale sharks I dive alongside in the Sea of
Cortez, where I´ve spent many other seasons.
San Ignacio Lagoon is beyond a doubt the
best place in the world for this close an encounter with the Gray Whale. There
are almost no worlds that can even begin to express the indescribably sublime
feeling that comes with the realisation that both mother and baby have chosen
to turn towards the boat.
Holding my breath I
remember how yesterday, she heaved her baby up to the extended arms and how I
watched the escalating excitement of everyone out there, including the boat alongside
waiting its turn. A touch, or more, a caress, is as breathtaking as the
unexpected warmth of its spongy rubbery skin.
An alarm sounds
again.Time out is over.Another full day scheduled ahead!
Most visitors arrive at the Laguna San Ignacio
by plane which lands on an isolated desert airstrip, about an hour from the
Baja Ecotours camp on the “Burro” (donkey), a converted 70´s American school
bus. The bus formerly named, the “cheese bus” by its kid riders,
probably saw its hay-day about 20yrs ago and equally as probably never even
imagined the tour of duty it was heading for.
Now Johnny Friday, another name somewhat
reminiscent of being lost on another type of desert island, has declared, says,
Liisa Juuti, our Finnish head Whale-watching guide, that there will be a newer
bus for next year! Johnny is one of the co-owners of the camp who arrived
here in the mid 80´s and saw the potential of all that the lagoon had to offer.
What he recognized then has probably not changed much. When our octogenarian
visitor, Donna, stepped off the plane last week she would have been another
reflection of the quintessential memory of a community which continues to be
bathed in an aura of another century.
The Laguna San Ignacio Gray Whale Sanctuary
sits on the Pacific side of the 6 million acre (2.5 million hectare), Vizcaino
Biosphere reserve, the largest in Mexico, along an almost uninhabited desert
coast where it´s estimated about 50% of the Gray Whales arrive between February
and March to breed and give birth before returning north to their feeding
grounds around 5000 kms away.
For this grand lady to have left her remote southern Californian
ranch to come all the way out here must mean that this desert place must hold
something special and being as vibrant as she is, Donna was game for all the
adventure that this experience is.
Besides the daily
interaction with the whales and the breathtaking beauty and simplicity of the
lagoon, I love the exchange of knowledge and experiences with our guests and
guides. Never had I thought that San Ignacio Lagoon was the place I’d learn the
steps for Electric Slide (that’s line dance, of course!). Thank you Nancy &
Spencer for sharing with us your passion! M-T, one of our guides, has been
giving very welcoming yoga / stretching sessions to our guests and sharing her
experience of free diving and whale sharks.
We learned a lot from
Carrie Newall, too. Carrie is a marine biology teacher and has been doing
gray whale research for almost 20 years. She brings her group of whale
enthusiastics and volunteers to our camp every year. She has her whale watching
company in Oregon and specializes in identifying the summer resident grays
along the Oregon coast. It was in the 60s and 70s that researchers observed
that a few gray whales were spending their summers along the coasts of Oregon,
California, Washington and British Colombia, instead of migrating to the
lagoons of Baja California. At the moment there are about 200 resident whales,
of which Carrie has identified about 75 individuals.
How to identify these
whales, then? Don’t they all look gray with barnacles in their head? There are
various factors that the whale biologists use to identify individuals. The
dorsal hump region is a good spot for identifying since it’s always seen when a
gray whale surfaces, and as each dorsal hump is as unique as a fingerprint.
Grays can also have scars in their bodies - both man-made (caused by a harpoon
or boat propeller) or by killer whale attacks - that serve as a way of
identifying them. They can have “birth marks”: prominent color patterns such as
white spots, horizontal lines or differences in tones. They might have scars
caused by barnacles (when a barnacle attaches to the skin, it permanently
depigments the skin leaving a unique white barnacle scar). There are also differences
in the color of gray whales; some are significantly darker, others lighter than
average. Also the fluke can be very different color from one individual to
During their stay at our camp Carrie was quite
sure of having spotted a whale called Beacon in the lagoon. It was first
identified off Depoe Bay in 2007. It was named Beacon because of the round
white spot on the right dorsal hump. Our boat drivers confirmed the visit from
Beacon in the lagoon.
Our first trips were once again very successful. We were lucky enough
to witness the show of a juvenile gray whale breaching twenty times in a row,
quite close to the pangas ! The grays were not the only residents of the
lagoon we got a chance to see : every day, we spotted some California sea
lions, bottlenose dolphins, common loons or brandt’s geese. The baby gray
whales are progressively getting used to our presence and on some occasions
their moms allow them to play with us. Almost all our guests if not all of them
got the possibility to pet a baby or an adult. On the last day, the weather
forecast announced a thunderstorm, but fortunately we were able to go out at
sea without getting wet by the pouring rain that started to fall during the
If you´ve never seen a
real whale close-up before, like Freddie, you might have become as excited as
he did as, on our fourth trip, a curious baby Gray whale weighing no more than
about 1.5 tons and spanning about a third of the length of the 23ft ´panga´
skiff, (small as far as whale babies are concerned), returned time after time
for a petting, its patient mother in escort. Freddie´s small frame paled in
comparison as he leaned over the side of the boat.
Freddie and his
sister, Alice had come all the way from England with their parents to
experience this one moment as we all had.
It´s still early in the
season to have expected this close an encounter as most of the adult Grays are
on the last leg of their 7,000 mile southward migration to the lagoons of
southern Baja California and are usually more concerned with courtship than our
skiffs. Although not social mammals characteristically except when mating,
throughout the week we were surrounded by curious spy hopping individuals,
graceful displays of whale-tales and often up to 5 adults traveling
single-mindedly through the lagoon on every whale-watching excursion, the
numbers sighted having increased from 224 in the first week of February to 286
by the second week.
For Freddie the day started
quietly only on the boat he wasn’t quiet at all. His playful calling prodded on
by his quite delicate little sister´s, escalated to high frequency squeals
when, close by burst the distinct sigh of two approaching whales and Paco, our panga
driver turned to face them… The heart-shaped mist of the mother returning to
surface sprayed over us and everyone began to shout “Splash! Splash!”
We made so much noise
that another boat came by to watch as we rocked from side to side as the mother
and calf dipped and dove under and around us for the next 40 minutes until with
a chorus of exalted laughs, Freddie reached out and touched the calf. He threw
his arms into the air with clenched fists and yelled, “”YESSSSSS!, with more
satisfaction than having scored a goal.
The day couldn’t have
been more thrilling when adults become children again. The silent watchers on
other boats probably wondered what magic we had onboard that allowed us this
close encounter. I swear it was us children laughing!
We like to think we run a tight ship when it comes to the kitchen. Not only are we very clean and consider personal hygene a MUST at the camp and especially in the kitchen, our staff are all very proud to have taken a 3 day course this past fall on health and cleanliness in the kitchen. We are one of few companies in the entire state of Baja Sur to have taken this course and in fact we graduated more staff than any other company in the state.