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Original Issue


The cobalt blue waters of Baja's Magdalena Bay are where the gray whales winter—big, barnacled mamas and their newborn 15-foot, half-ton offspring

In the winter of 1856, we were whaling about...Magdalena Bay, where, in attacking sixteen whales, two boats were entirely destroyed, while the others were staved fifteen times; and out of eighteen men who officered and manned them, six were badly jarred, one had both legs broken, another three ribs fractured, and still another was so much injured internally that he was unable to perform duty during the rest of the voyage. All these serious casualties happened before a single whale was captured.... And one of Captain L.'s felicitous amusements was in dilating upon the terrors of 'devil-fishing'.... 'We was chasing a cow and calf, and I charged my boat-steerer to be careful and not touch the young sucker, for if he did, the old whale would knock us into chopsticks; but no sooner said than done—slam went two irons into the critter, chock to the hitches, and that calf was "pow-mucky" in less than no time; and the boat-steerer sung out: "Cap'n, I've killed the calf, and the old cow is after us." Well, just about this time, I sung out to the men to pull for the shore as they loved their lives; and when that boat struck the beach, we scattered. I'll admit I never stopped to look round; but the boat-steerer yelled out: "Cap'n, the old whale is after us still," when I told all hands to climb trees!' "

Thus, more than a century ago, Charles Melville Scammon, whaling skipper par excellence, described the pursuit of the California gray whale in his definitive non-fiction work of the 19th century, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Together with an Account of the American Whale-Fishery. For the thousands of whale enthusiasts who have begun to swarm into Baja California during the winter months, with eyes and cameras cocked for a closeup look at the California gray, Scammon's little scare story ought to be required reading.

This winter, in an estuary of Magdalena Bay, a 22-foot outboard containing a party of whale watchers approached a cow and calf. The waters of Mag Bay and environs are never what you might call gin clear, but rather a murky blue, so that when a whale sounds it is impossible to tell where it will reemerge. Suddenly the calf surfaced within six feet of the boat. A girl, caught up in some inner replay of Songs of the Humpback Whale and feeling in tune with whale-dom, leaped overboard—between the calf and the cow.

"It was touch and go," recalls Tim Means, a Baja-wise veteran of the whaling lagoons. "The cow, by rights, should have smashed that young lady into human sashimi and our boat into chopsticks. The flukes on her tail were a good 10 feet across. But the old lady was kind to us that day. She simply herded the calf away from any imagined danger and flirted her skirts at us. As it was, the whirlpool she whipped up with her fast turn darn near swamped the boat."

Means, 32, is the head of Baja Expeditions, Inc., a San Diego-based outfit that organizes natural-history excursions through the peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. The six-day whale-watching trips are new on his agenda. For $495 per person, the groups of 15 are bused from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico, then flown to La Paz. From there they are taken across the peninsula to the fishing village of Puerto Lopez Mateos and ensconced in a tented camp on a reach of sand dunes across the estuary from the port. Meals are taken aboard a 54-foot Mexican sardine boat, the Alejandro, and the chow—prepared by a maestro of tortillas and beans named Chaparrito—is excellent. The camp is run by another old Baja hand, Mac Shroyer, and his wife Mary, who hails from Hawaii and does everything barefoot.

Magdalena Bay is a harshly beautiful world of sand, sun, wind and water. The main bay measures 80 square miles in area, but with attendant estuaries it extends fully 150 miles along the sparsely populated Pacific coast of Baja. Some 600 miles south of the border, Magdalena is the southernmost of the three Baja lagoons to which the California grays migrate each winter for courting and calving. Scammon Lagoon, near the town of Guerrero Negro in the midriff region of Baja, is the northernmost, and since the paved "Frijole Freeway" came through four years ago, the most accessible. But government permits are required to put a motorboat into Scammon during the whale season, and the government discourages all but those whale watchers with proper scientific credentials from getting close to the cetaceans there. San Ignacio Lagoon, between Scammon and Magdalena, can be reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles over an arduous 90-mile stretch of the Vizcaino Desert. For now, at least, Mag Bay is whale-watchers' heaven.

Flying up the bay from the south one recent morning, it was possible to count fully 150 whales rolling in the calm waters of the lagoon, most of them cows with calves at their sides. Mile-square rafts of waterfowl—black brant in the main—covered the mangrove-flanked shallows, and shore birds flew in white wreaths and plumes up and down the dunes. A colony of California sea lions basked along one stretch of Isla Santa Margarita, the big, broad-shouldered bulls charging and swatting at their frisky offspring. But it was the whales—barnacled, massive in their slow grace, snorting house-high cones of vapor—that dominated the nature show.

The whales begin to show up in December, with the main body of the migration all present and accounted for by the beginning of the year. The cows, which are pregnant—they carry their young 13 months—stay in the nursery lagoon south of the Shroyers' camp. The mothers push their babies to the surface for their first breaths. It's quite a sight—a spreading swirl of blood in the blue water and then the baby blowing for the first time. Some baby! A newborn gray is about 15 feet long and weighs half a ton.

A nursing calf consumes 50 gallons of milk daily, and the milk is rich—40% butterfat, as opposed to 3.5% in dairy cows' milk. The females reach sexual maturity between five and 10, live to 30 or 40 and bear young every two or three years. A full-grown female may be as long as 48 feet and weigh 35 tons. Up to a quarter of this weight is blubber, not so much to keep the whales warm, as is commonly believed, but to store energy for use during the long winter fast off Baja and to streamline them. The grays spend the summer in the Arctic, from Siberia clear around to Point Barrow, Alaska, where each day they consume a ton or more of amphipods, little flealike, bottom-dwelling crustaceans.

From what sort of animal did the whale evolve? Scientists are not sure, but they believe from the mesonychid, a giant piglike creature that lived about 60 million years ago and slowly adapted to a marine environment to elude predators and to take advantage of a plentiful source of food. The size of a Kodiak bear, the mesonychid was low-slung, with a long snout and large triangular teeth. The baleen whales, of which the gray is one, probably evolved later from the toothed whales.

Unlike sperm whales, that have been known to dive to 3,700 feet, the grays do not go much below three hundred, because their food is most abundant in relatively shallow water. But even at those depths the pressure is considerable. To withstand that kind of crushing they have developed floating ribs and a spongelike mass of blood vessels called retia mirabilia that regulate blood pressure and act as a blood reservoir during rapid dives and ascents. With each breath they can exchange 80% of their air, while we normally exchange about 8%. This enables them to stay deep for an hour or more.

The old-time whalers of Scammon's day had a healthy respect for the California gray. Some called it the "hardhead," a nickname well justified when an enraged cow slammed a flimsy longboat with her brow. Their frequent dives to the bottom of the lagoon, after which they surface with dark ooze dripping from heads and lips, led the whalers to conclude they were feeding on shellfish, hence another nickname, "mussel digger." Actually, while in the lagoons of Baja, the California gray doesn't feed at all; at least, scientists haven't been able to confirm any feeding activity. "To our personal knowledge," wrote Scammon, "but little or no food has been found in the animal's stomach. We have examined several taken in the lagoons, and in them we found what the whalers called 'sedge' or 'sea moss,' which at certain seasons darkens the waters in extensive patches both in and about the mouths of the estuaries. Whether this was taken into the stomach as food some naturalists doubt, giving as a reason that the whale, passing through the water mixed with this vegetable matter, on opening its mouth would of necessity receive more or less of it, which would be swallowed...."

Most of Scammon's fellow whalers couldn't have cared less what the whale ate. They were wholly concerned with killing it as safely and expeditiously as possible. "The casualties...are nothing to be compared with the accidents that have been experienced by those engaged in taking the females in the lagoons," wrote Scammon. Yet, hunt them they did, savagely and ruthlessly, almost to the point of extinction. In 1938, when the forerunner of the International Whaling Commission banned hunting of the California gray, there were about 500 individuals extant. The herd now numbers 12,000.

The first afternoon of our stay at the Baja Expeditions camp, Means proposed that the party take off on a hunt of its own, but with curiosity rather than killing as the goal.

The boat, powered by a 40-horsepower outboard with a local boatman named Salvador at the helm, prowls the channel northward. From across the still lagoon come reports like distant shotgun blasts—whales blowing. Now and then a huge set of flukes swings into the sky and then sinks slowly into the water. Near the Boca de Soledad, about five miles north of camp, a congress of grays is in session, mainly cows and newborn calves. Occasionally one or another of them "spyhops," coming up out of the water headfirst as if on a freight elevator, until the huge eyes, eight feet aft of the round nose, are clear of the water. Some of the spyhoppers turn slowly in a full circle before sinking back out of sight.

"Nobody's really sure why they do that," says Means. "Some scientists think it's just to have a look-see for possible danger or to locate other whales. Incidentally, no baleen whale has been shown to use echo location, though it is regularly used by the toothed whales, including dolphins. Scientists say that whales don't eat during migration, but I wonder if they aren't actually stirring the sand on the bottom in order to scare up clams or plankton. Often after a gray spy-hops, it puts its head right down over the spot, flukes up, as if it's feeding."

A quarter-mile away and very close to shore a lone whale suddenly begins to breech, taking long, three-quarter-body-length leaps out of the water, splashing back with the crash of a falling redwood, then leaping again, 12 times in all. Means says they breech in order to shake loose the barnacles and whale lice that plague them from birth to death. Whatever the cause, it is an awesome sight.

"Let's get up close to a couple of them," says Means. He rattles Spanish at Salvador, who in turn grins gleefully and opens the throttle. Mexicans seem to love to go fast. With Means standing foursquare in the bow to give hand signals, the boat skids up to a cow and calf cruising slowly along the dunes. Twenty yards away, 10, five—the vapor from the whales' blowholes drifts over the watchers. Some whales have bad breath.

The huge, gray-green shoulders of the cow gleam under the hard sun, her back spiked white with barnacles. A bow wave like that of an ocean-going tug precedes her. The calf holds close at her flank, fearless in mommy's massive company. The cow moves faster, opening the gap between herself and the boat. One suddenly sees what skill and strength it must have taken in the old whaling days—before catch boats and harpoon guns—to stroke alongside these creatures and slam a harpoon into them. Then the whales dive, flukes rising synchronously, with water pouring off as if from a waterfall. All that remains is a vast green whirlpool.

On the way back to camp the visitors unlimber their fishing tackle. Plugging the mangrove banks with orange, white or yellow lead heads, they hook grouper, cabrilla, corbina and flounder, but none of the outsized black snook reputed to thrive in Mag Bay. Dr. Henry F. Lenartz, an ophthalmologist from Los Altos, Calif., hasn't fished much since his boyhood in Wisconsin and frequently hangs his lures in the mangroves, but soon he finds the range and cranks in a 10-pound snowy grouper, largest fish of the day. "It's not a snook, but it'll eat just fine," he says. He gazes around at the bright water, the rolling whales in the distance, the wind working ghostly fingers over the sand dunes. "I'll tell you, it beats lens implants all hollow."

That night, around a fire of mesquite and cactus, with whisky chill in Sierra Club cups, the group listens to the hollow roar of the Pacific surf on the beaches half a mile west over the dunes. Coyotes sing to the surf and one another. Talk turns to bandidos. Every member of the group had been asked by friends and neighbors before heading down to Baja, "Aren't you worried about the bandit problem?" What bandit problem? Over in the mainland state of Sinaloa, where the heroin wars are raging, Americans have been robbed and murdered, but in recent years, except in the tourist towns near the border, only two American tourists, camped on a remote beach at the southern tip, have been killed in the Baja Peninsula. Two men evidently walked into their camp, had coffee with their victims, then shot them.

Mexican authorities are quick to point out that only money and credit cards were taken from the victims, while things like gasoline, camper batteries, tires and the like—which the bandits would certainly have preferred had they been Mexican—remained untouched. And the tracks of the killers, say the Mexicans, were made by American shoes, not Mexican. Anyone camping out anywhere in the national parks of the U.S., where 10 people were murdered last year, or on the roadsides of Europe, is taking a chance in this age of outlawry, but, statistically, Baja is one of the safest "wild" spots on earth. As the saying goes, "There are few murders in the Baja, no rapes, but plenty of shotgun weddings."

In five days of camping, fishing, goose hunting and whale watching at Magdalena Bay, the closest this group came to danger was getting stuck with the odd cactus thorn or suffering from a painful case of sunburn after a long day on the water. To be sure, Tim Means—an avid snake collector—made things spicy by keeping a sidewinder rattlesnake, bagged in a croker sack, around camp, playfully changing its location, unannounced, every now and then. But nobody could be sure there actually was a snake in the bag, and nobody seemed curious enough to peek in to find out.

Oh, yes. There was one brief, heart-stopping moment. Shortly before moon-rise, after dinner aboard the Alejandro (grouper broiled over mesquite coals, tortillas and beans), Means headed the outboard back across the waterway toward camp. Suddenly a huge black shape loomed not 10 feet ahead of the bow. A noise like that of a saluting cannon exploded over the engine roar. Vapor and whale breath blew over the boat's occupants. Means slammed into a hard left turn and cut the throttle.

The cow and her calf slipped noiselessly into the darkness. Dead silence for a long moment. Then, in the distance, the coyotes resumed their song.


Coyotes howled around the tourists' camp as the whales blew and "spyhopped" in their nursery.