Petting Whales (it’s true!!!) in Baja California

april 2016 1178A light breeze tickles my hair as sunlight dazzles on blue water. Arid mountains rise on the horizon, while the boat gently rolls to the husky hum of an outboard motor.

Deep inside me a thrill blossoms: A gray whale materializes just feet from our panga–a small open fishing boat.

At first it’s a glimmer of murky white speckles–a vague, mysterious hint of movement, barely detectable. As she ascends, she transforms: From shadowy indistinct suggestion to a grey-and-white mottled outline, then all dimension and details are revealed as she breaks the surface and takes a breath, water sheeting off her back.

We all gasp as she and her calf drift alongside our vessel and she emits a glittering blast from her blowhole. The spray drifts over us, pungent with a fishy fragrance reflecting her diet of tiny invertebrates–although here in the breeding grounds of Bahia de San Ignacio, she probably doesn’t eat at all. Instead, she nurses her young calf on 50 gallons of milk a day as she helps it master swimming, diving, and making friends with curious humans.

april 2016 1171

The pair parallel our boat as we motor slowly forward. My heart leaps as mama changes her angle and comes straight for us. She lingers alongside as a half dozen hands reach to pet her. Her skin’s slick and shiny, and has a little give–like a well-inflated wet inner tube. Individual short, bristly hairs emerge from dimples on her enormous lower jaw, and constellations of barnacles and lice are scattered over her body–all harmless.

She rolls over, offering her dappled belly for more stroking before abruptly dropping into roiling waters with a flip of fin and tail.

But they’re not done! Mama and baby hang out. The interest and curiosity are mutual–they approach one side of the panga, engage with us, drop and glide under to emerge on the other side for more caresses. We learn that their eyes are directed downwards, so when they roll away–or spyhop– they are just trying to get a good look at us. Human watching.

90 minutes of whale watching feels like a small miracle. I am forever changed.