22 February 2008
CHASING DOWN THE MUSE:
By Catharine Cooper
To be touched by a whale is to be changed for life.
It’s an experience that entered my psyche, bounced around my emotional pool and exited through my intellect. Soft whale skin pressed against my cheek. A throat lifted toward me — “please scratch me.” Mother whales lifted babies toward the boat.
This gift, this play, this sharing.
Can it not be considered an act of love?
How is it possible that these extraordinary leviathans trust us at all? Hunted to near extinction — not once, but twice — their numbers had been reduced to fewer than 100 by human hands hungry for lamp oil.
That they continue to reach out to us, present their young for petting, acknowledge and seek out our presence is a mystery — and some would call, a miracle.
We were four — Lynn, Laura, Eloise and me — at Campo Cortez seeking “the friendlies” as the whales in the lagoon have come to be known. To arrive, we’d overcome a faulty car alarm, a dead starter motor, 40 miles of wicked washboard road and one flat tire. Once we arrived at camp, the dusty journey drifted into the past.
Campo Cortez sits on the edge of the lagoon near the boundary of the birthing waters and the playpen in the sanctuary. San Ignacio Lagoon is part of the Vizcaíno Desert Biosphere Reserve, a recognized World Heritage site. This desert is extremely dry, consists primarily of volcanic soil and has limited vegetation.
The location of the camps is totally “off the grid.” There is no electricity, no phone lines, or fresh water system.
This has limited the human invasion — no commerce centers or factories mar this retreat. The night sky provides a triple blanket of stars, and the silence is broken only by the whale songs and coyote calls.
On our late afternoon arrival (the tire thing), we were quickly fitted with life jackets by guides Adrianna and Christina, and joined the other “campers” on three separate pongas. The wind was brisk and whipped up small waves and we bounced inside the boat.
Whale spouts surrounded us, and even though we were early in the season, the park personnel had counted 85 whales, all of which seemed to be diving, rolling and breaching in the bay. Our first trip, none advanced to be pet, but they were close enough to almost touch.
That night, we were treated to footage by a film crew from National Geographic, led by documentarian, Luke Inman. He showed clips of whales spy-hopping the boat, spraying the passengers, and being kissed.
The tide in the morning was ultra low, and the mud flats in front of our cabins were alive with shorebirds foraging for small crustaceans. Oyster catchers mingled with marbled godwits, sandpipers, heron and cattle egrets. Overhead, two osprey searched the receding water for their breakfast.
After breakfast, we all walked to the point and again boarded the boats. Our boat captain, Cuko, had not driven very far when we encountered our first pair.
He idled the engine and we started to splash in the water. The whales seem to be drawn either to the soft sound or the droplets themselves, but the mother whale came right to the boat with her baby.
We could see them under the water before they surfaced and were all “ooh” and “ahh” as they lifted their heads right next to us to be touched.
Each in turn ran their hands across a skin surface that felt unexpectedly as soft as a chamois. Soon, we had a second pair, and we were petting, scratching … and yes, kissing the tops of these huge mammals heads.
A park boat nearby whose job it is to insure that no whale watching takes place inside the birthing zone, was surprised by the attention of a solitary whale. She would simply not leave his boat alone, and kept spy-hopping (coming up head first) and peering into his boat. Satisfied that he had no passengers, the whale began to play with the boat, pushing it in circles with her nose, and at one point, lifting the bow gently out of the water.
A sweet four-year old was on our boat, and was simply delighted to watch all the excitement. Over dinner, she asked her mother, “Why do people want to touch them?”
There are probably as many answers as there are those lucky enough to experience a whale’s touch. For me, it was exactly that — the touch. Not simply my hands on their bodies, but their reaching out, soliciting the experience. Together, we bridged the human barrier that separates us from most creatures in the wild.
No longer will the spouts of whale spume offshore be merely white foam. I’ll remember the eye of the whale, how the tiny baby looked up at me from her watery home, and we connected. I’ll be thankful for conservation measures and the way that sometimes, human beings can protect and defend their fellow travelers on planet earth.
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