Monday, March 14, 2011

Whale Soup

Odd how things happen.  A few weeks ago I had just started constructing this post for The Headlands Report when a friend called and asked if I was going to attend the 8th annual San Francisco Ocean Film Festival.  In years past my restaurant work schedule had always gotten in the way, and I'd never been able to make it.  Well, we all know that 2011 ain't like years past, eh?

I'm in! I emailed back, then happily spent some time online researching the different program offerings over the five-day event.  Finally I settled on one for last Saturday afternoon: an interesting-sounding collection chronicling, among other subjects, the plight of dwindling shark populations (alarming), the Farallon Islands (love 'em), and manta rays (also alarming).  The clincher, though, was a film titled Whales of Gold, which told the story of the "friendly" gray whales of San Ignacio Lagoon on the Baja Peninsula, the eco-tourism industry that has sprung up in the area, and the complex issues facing those communities and families who live side by side with the whales.

It was an interesting collection of films, and needless to say I wish I could've attended more.  The documentary on the Farallon Islands was informative and visually beautiful and right up my alley, of course, as y'all know what a big fan I am.  Sharks and manta rays, however, took center stage for the program with several films.  Gory, disturbing and eye-opening films.  The gist in a nutshell is that sharks are in serious trouble.  Scientists estimate that several species are now a mere 20% of historic numbers, and that shark fin soup is the biggest culprit.  It's also the biggest waste: if you're gonna catch and kill a shark, then you should eat/use every bit that's eatable/usable.  Instead, these days most sharks are landed (now by the hundreds, by the thousands), have their fins cut off, and are then thrown back into sea.  There they die.

Manta rays - so beautiful, so graceful, so gentle - are perhaps even worse off, for several reasons.  Shark fin soup has been around for centuries (no excuse for the modern, mindless, industrial-sized slaughter), but the demand for manta ray gills, some researchers say, has no traditional, medicinal or historic foundation; it is a recent phenomenon because sharks are getting so rare.  Worldwide mantas are also a much smaller population than sharks, and they don't become sexually mature until maybe 12 years old.  When they do reach reproductive age, mantas give birth to only one pup at a time every 3 years or so.  Talk about a recipe for disaster, for extinction within decades if the trend continues!

Two other tidbits, both a surprise.

First, apparently a fact: The city of San Francisco, it appears, will soon vote on a proposition to ban the sale of shark fins and shark fin soup.  Like a newly passed law in Hawai'i, merchants that sell and those who imbibe will have a year to get rid of the fins, the evidence and the custom, or face a $15,000 fine.

Second, and this of course we learned from the people leading the charge: Shark fin soup is almost devoid of flavor, carries little nutritional value, and - because sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain - is loaded with mercury and other toxins.  Payback!

Okay then.  On to the original post.

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Behold the mighty leviathan.  Behold their gargantuan size, their majesty and mystery; the improbable and gentle nature of a beast so undeniably big-ass and powerful.  And if you're into them get ready, because whale season in northern California is now underway.

First to arrive are the gray whales, who with their newborns calfs travel close to the coast on an annual journey north to the Gulf of Alaska, and are often visible from land.  The best place to see them swim by in our neck of the woods, should you desire, is at the Point Reyes Lighthouse lookout in western Marin County.  It takes a full two hours to drive there from San Francisco, and a half hour to hike down to the lighthouse, but if the weather and the whales cooperate you might just have a grand day out.

Toward the start of summer the great whales arrive.  Blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, even transient killer whales: with a host of other marine mammals they return to the abundant food source surrounding the Farallon Islands and the edge of the continental shelf.  Risso's dolphin, northern right whale dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin and Dall's porpoise join them for the feeding frenzy.

In March of 2001, ten years ago (yikes), I flew down to San Diego, rented a macho, fire engine-red Chevy Camero and drove east to the desert wilderness of Anza Borrego State Park.  For three days and three nights I explored: hiked up canyons and washes, dipped my feet in freshwater springs, looked for bighorn sheep and looked out for mountain lions, relaxed by the pool of the Oasis Motel during the heat of day and sat beneath the stars at night.  Coyotes yipped and howled from afar, lizards and crickets chipped in the dark, and the silent moon gazed down from the sky, illuminating the stark beauty of the nighttime desert.

When my time was up I cruised back to San Diego for a final night.  The next morning I packed up and checked out, then sat in the hotel lobby, waiting.  Soon a smattering of other people joined me.  And soon after that we began our 5-day aquatic safari: one of the world's coolest, most improbable meetings of man and animal.

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Whale Soup

Laguna de San Ignacio, on my last night in this isolated desert wilderness, is dark and silent.  Dark except for the zillions of stars that blaze overhead, stretching to the horizon in every direction.  Silent except for the wind that swoops down from the Santa Clara Mountains in the north.  The lights from our temporary home, the music and laughter barely echoing from within the tents: all are dwarfed by the expanse surrounding our camp.  Standing motionless at the edge of the placid tidal flats, trying to breathe in and capture for a lifetime this unique combination of inhospitable, arid landscape and watery wonderland, I inhale deeply.  I feel the sprawling, white sand dunes across the lagoon, feel the lifeless salt flats still baking at my back.  I imagine the maze-like mangrove swamps snaking about the edge of the vast lagoon, sense the teeming deep blue water at my feet.  I remember the intense sun setting in the west as a cool moon creeps up in the east; smell the dry, briny, fresh and decaying air that consumes this place.  It feels timeless and complete.

Then off in the black, silent night before me, the somber, haunting blow of a gentle leviathan breaks the surface as it reaches for a breath.  It is the most powerful, pleasing sound on Earth.

Every year the California gray whale travels south from the rich, summer feeding grounds of the Bering Sea, south to their longtime winter home on the Pacific Coast of the Baja peninsula. In January and February hundreds of these giants arrive.  Many of them spend the next few months relaxing, mating and raising their young in the peaceful waters of San Ignacio Lagoon.  We travel south as well, to this remote corner of the planet: ten curious humans, voluntarily plucked from our lives back home, whisked down to the lonely, pristine shores of a truly remarkable place.

Flying down from San Diego in the belly of an cantankerous, riveted DC-3 with my fellow adventurers, I do not believe that I will be able to pet a gray whale.  Even though I am told that they arrived in Baja late this year, I am still worried that most of the whales might be leaving the lagoon for their long journey back north by the time we land in the middle of March.  I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this place, from these animals.  But after hearing stories of the “friendly” ones, having seen the pictures, I can only hope.  Thinking back as I write this, thinking back now to just last week, I can no longer remember how many whales I actually did touch, did pet and stroke as they lingered by our boat: four, five, six?  I can no longer remember how many of these magnificent creatures let me.

One of the smooth, gray babies - born 12 feet long and weighing one ton - is so curious and gregarious as it swims between our two 15-foot pangas, we later named it Sweetie Pie.  On just our first trip out on the water this youngster approaches the boats, closer and closer each time, finally allowing someone to touch it’s firm, rubbery, blubbery snout.  With a swish of it’s tail, Sweetie Pie plunges away, disappears for a moment, and then resurfaces only to do it all again.  Amid the shouts and hoots from the humans on board, this enthusiastic, playful juvenile becomes quite brave, spending more and more time within our reach.  For maybe half an hour Sweetie Pie bounds about like most fun loving young animals; all the while the massive, barnacle encrusted mother waits patiently near by, swimming between the boats or floating languidly on the surface.  Suddenly it is over.  Mom gives some silent signal and the two swim away to do some other important whale things.

Campo Ramon, Baja California Sur: life in the middle of nowhere, two hours in good weather by dirt road to the nearest small town. I would like to say how physically demanding it all was.  No electricity, save that which was generated by the sun and the wind.  No fresh running water, save that which was trucked in from San Ignacio town.  But I can’t.  The amenities provided by Baja Expeditions are endless: warm sun showers, odor-free compost toilets, cozy canvas tents, canvas cots with pillows and sleeping bags, three huge Mexican meals a day, strong black coffee in the morning, Happy Hour at 5:00 PM, lanterns to read by, lots of ice cold Negro Modelo and Pacifico, chamber pots for midnight bathroom duty (lots of ice cold Negro Modelo and Pacifico!), a presentation after dinner on the gray whale by a visiting biologist, the next night a slide show and talk on Baja California, freshly made ice cream, a small library of books on whales.  All trucked in at the beginning of the winter whale season and trucked back out in April, leaving no trace behind.

San Ignacio Lagoon sprawls across the surrounding desert 17 miles long and 5 miles wide.  The number of native Mexican people that live in the area is only in the hundreds!  We are lucky to have a few of them work in the camp, lucky to meet a few of them and hear some stories.

Some 25 odd years ago the father of Ranulfo, one of our proud, accomplished panga operators, was fishing on the lagoon as he and perhaps his father had done for years.  The whales wintered in San Ignacio then as they do now; they came long before being hunted to the verge of extinction, and they continue to visit now that they are no longer on the endangered species list.  Ranulfo’s family lived with them side by side.  But it was his father who one day had an inquisitive gray swim toward the small boat and offer the first “friendly” encounter.  Over the year’s word of the odd interaction spread.  As more whales offered up the unique experience, people trickled in to see for themselves: biologists, nature lovers, and inquisitive vacationers.  Our five-day excursion to the lagoon with Baja Expeditions is one small part of the adventure industry that has sprung up around these grand aquatic mammals and their curious behavior.  No one guarantees that you will touch a whale.  Law prohibits harassing or chasing them; they must initiate the encounter.  But nowhere else in the world, including the other lagoons of Guererro Negro and Scammon’s in the North, and Bahia Magdelena in the South, are the odds stacked so well in our favor.  For whatever reason, nowhere else are the friendly encounters so frequent.  The story is out.  On the day our group is scheduled to leave Ranulfo is returning home to “play” his father for a European crew filming a documentary on the history of the lagoon.

Five out of six times whale watching we have friendly encounters. It seems as though Sweetie Pie and mom are always out in the water somewhere, waiting for more interactions.  Other whales, some of which our guides recognize and know by their man-given names, approach the pangas as well.  Alejando and Susan, our camp manager and our camp guide say it is almost unprecedented: the weather is the best of the season, and the number of friendly encounters very unusual.

They call it whale soup.

Baja Expeditions has us all on a demanding schedule.  I slip into the routine as easily as the bottlenose dolphins we see one day slip through the turquoise water.  Awake at 6:30 am, I head to the big green tent that serves as the common area for meals, pour myself a cup of strong black coffee and walk to my sandy perch above the receding tidal flat at the edge of the lagoon. Seagulls whirl overhead, dropping clams onto the mud in hopes that they will pop open and expose the meal within.  Several brown pelicans glide by, decked out in their somewhat gaudy winter plumage.  Over the flock of feeding Brandt’s geese and one lone, spearfishing egret, I gaze out to the distant spouts of surfacing gray whales.  Before long Amarillo, the yellow tabby that serves as the camp’s protector against mice, saunters up for a morning snuggle.  Other whale watchers emerge from their tents, and by 7:30 a hot breakfast of chilaquiles or quesadillas is served.

The rest of the day is as predictable as the beautiful beginning. By 9:00 we are on the water in search of whales, guided in our pangas by Luis and Ranulfo.  Back to camp for a 12:00 lunch; Pupo the head cook knowingly serves some sort of hot soup ( one day a chowder made from local Pismo clams ), along with other delicious Mexican fare.  After lunch we are free to kayak up the mangroves, explore the beach or rest until 2:00, when Alejandro or Susan round us up with the familiar, drawn out yell: “Whaaaaaaaale Watchers!”  4, 4:30, and we return to shore with another expert landing that barely wets our shoes.  Happy Hour at 5:00.  Dinner at 6:00.  We eat like kings!  Huge chafing dishes full of freshly caught grouper with rice, pollo con mole, or beef tacos.  Always frijoles, soft tortillas, plenty of salsa and hot sauce.  A cooler full of beer, soda and local Baja wine made from the white Mission grape.  Followed by flan, fresh fruit or ice cream.  Over dinner we relive the various escapades of the fascinating gray whale.  By 9:00 people say good night, wander off, and zip up their tents.

Yup: On the pot

The Baja Expeditions Crew
with Susan and Alejandro in the lower left

In the mid 90’s Mitsubishi Corporation unveiled plans to build a salt processing plant on the shores of San Ignacio, just like the one it still operates up north at Guererro Negro, another gray whale wintering lagoon.  Looking at the meager settlements that dot the land surrounding San Ignacio, I can hear the company executives as they must have outlined the many improvements the salt plant would bring to the native families: paved roads, heat, running water, electricity, all leading to an heightened quality of life.  A long, drawn out debate ensued; multiple environmental impact studies were done.  And battle lines were drawn, pitting neighbors and family members against each other. I feel a guilty sense of pride, sitting now in my well-lit, heated, plumbed San Francisco apartment, knowing that in the end the people of San Ignacio chose to do without Mitsubishi.  The people instead embraced the Eco-Tourism that would hopefully provide them, and the whale, with a future that leaves the area preserved as the only undeveloped gray whale lagoon on the Baja peninsula.

A single adult whale is infatuated with the motor on the back of our boat.  For a long time the whale floats underwater on it’s back, snout just under the propeller, relaxed and pleased as punch.  When it swims toward the side of the boat and someone tries to touch, it veers away, dives under, and resurfaces at our stern, belly up, nose to the motor again.  Odd behavior, no one is sure what to make of it.

In addition to the Baja Expeditions crew there are three Canadian biologists staying at Campo Ramon.  This is their first year wintering here with the whales, making photo-identifications of individuals and beginning studies on the heart rate of gray whales.  After a fine dinner one night, William, the founder of CERF (Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation) in British Colombia, delivers an interesting lecture on the gray whale, complete with snazzy computer pictures.  They accompany us out on the water as well, allowing Susan and Alejandro a bit of free time.  It is fun to have them in camp with us; their love for the whale is obvious, and their commitment to understanding it is impressive.  William later tells us an unbelievable story of mating whales.  But tonight, as he explains his research and shows us the somewhat jerry-rigged sensors he must temporarily stick on the whale’s back to retrieve data, part of me can’t help but wonder if these suction cup attachments are intrusive, and why we need the information. I know for sure that William’s own heart is in the right place, but I also wonder why we as humans just can’t leave them alone.

A whale urban legend.  It is a wild story of two randy males trying to mate with a lone female.  To elude their amorous advances, the female goes belly up, hiding right under an inflatable Zodiac being used by a couple of researchers.  With a pair of 35 ton, frustrated whales on each side of the boat, the stunned humans duck for cover as two nine-foot male sex organs flail overhead in an attempt to reach the female!

Too many whales can be a hazard to navigation.  During a rare quiet period on perhaps our third time out, we search and search, but no whales can be found.  Sure, off in the distance we see the distinctive heart shaped spouts of surfacing grays, but we learn early there is no need to travel far for sightings.  Just wait.  So as we troll on and on, the conversation turns from whales to other topics.  Cameras come down; we enjoy just being out on the water.  Suddenly, the boat lurches to one side with a thud! Passengers let out a yelp.  Out of the blue, a huge adult whale surfaces on our starboard side, from nowhere, right under the boat.  Just as shocked and I’m sure surprised as we are, I can imagine it thinking as it swims away, awakened rudely from it’s daydreaming: “Where the hell did YOU come from?”  That, or “Get the hell out of my way!”

Spy-hopping.  Although not as dramatic as a breach, when a 40-foot adult propels itself out of the water and high into the air, landing back on the surface with an incredible slash, spy-hopping is still perhaps the coolest of whale maneuvers.  It’s cool because it seems so effortless!  During a breach, imagine the power the whale must generate in order to rocket out of the water.  They must dive down deep; with incredible swings of their muscular tail and flukes they must speed upward and launch their massive bodies toward the sky!  With a spy-hop, however, the whale slowly and silently eases its broad snout out of the water, straight up, till most of the long tapered head is exposed.  There they pause, doing what no one is really sure.  After a moment, or several moments, they slip straight back down from where they came.  With barely a ripple on the surface the whale slides gently back under water and is gone.  It is always fascinating.

“The future of the region,” I ask Alejandro after dinner?  He responds that the paved road from town is inevitable, cutting down travel time to 45 minutes.  A paved airstrip will follow, and more people will come: in planes and campers and RVs. Electricity and water will bring even more sightseers, more boats, and more trash.  Susan, Alejandro and Ranulfo agree that the locals must decide on a plan for their own future.  They must map out the details for development before anyone else does. Although the region is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected by several organizations, I can’t help but consider myself lucky to experience the wonders of San Ignacio Lagoon sooner than later.

As I researched this trip and toyed with the different options available for a first time traveler, I became quite confused about which outfit to chose, when to go, which lagoon to visit.  Not knowing for sure if this would be my one and only trip, I scoured the Internet for more info, looking for any first hand account of the different areas.  I received all kinds of information, but still remained confused.  Then I discovered a web-site by a Mexican woman who seemed to know the area well, but had no affiliation with any one company.  I sent off a correspondence with my concerns.  When she replied, she made it very clear that I should do anything and everything possible to chose the most remote, the most pristine and untouched of the three lagoons: San Ignacio.  Although I have forgotten her name, I thank her now for the advice.

A leviathan Madonna and Child

Why do the gray whales of San Ignacio have a reputation for more friendly encounters than those found in Bahia Magdelena or Guererro Negro?  What are they thinking; do they, in fact, think? After twice being hunted to the edge of extinction by man, why would these gentle, mysterious behemoths of the sea want to interact with us?  And now given the chance to further evolve on our blue planet, what other future delights might they have in store?

How can a protective mother whale, one that will hold her infant out of the water on her back to protect it from danger, wait quietly by while her calf cavorts with the same species that once made the waters of her winter retreat in Baja run red with blood?

My unscientific mind wants to believe it is their way of saying thank you.

March '01

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This is my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Dogs do not chase speeding bicycles anymore.  It has apparently been weaned out of their collective consciousness to find the spinning wheels and pumping legs and whirling bike pedals as attractive or as exciting as they used to be.

Sticks, tennis balls, frisbees, squirrels, the human crotch, sniffing other canine genitalia and random digging at the beach, it seems, retain a timeless appeal.

When I was a youngster living on Macauley Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, the very sight of an unleashed dog as you rounded the corner on your 3-speed, banana-seat Schwinn was enough to strike terror into your heart, and you quickly scanned the area for possible escape routes.  They would go after you, fast!  Scotties and Collies and German Shepards and Corgis alike, yapping and barking and snapping at your heels.  Try to peddle and kick back at them and keep your feet away from the sharp-toothed, dirty, salivating snout.  Or turn about pronto, speed away and hope they couldn't catch up.

These days as I ride toward the Golden Gate Bridge, over 35 years later, the threat is no longer much of an issue, or an issue at all.  I wonder why.  My shiny green, mud-sprayed Specialized StumpJumper is much cooler and much faster than those models of old.  And the path winding through Crissy Field next to the San Francisco Bay is dog heaven: a plethora of riders all for the taking.  But we are no longer of interest.

The dogs have learned.

On some small islands off the windswept coast of South Africa, I recently read, a population of fish loving pelicans has started attacking gannet chicks and eating them.  Pelicans eating other birds?  Researchers and biologists are stunned, as the behavior is new and has never before been documented, anywhere.

The pelicans have learned to augment their perhaps diminishing menu of fish with their own avian cousins.

Sharks, for god's sake, must have learned.  They must have realized long ago that humans make for a shabby, bony, meager feast; realized that la specialité de la maison chez Planet Earth is instead the blubber rich marine mammals.  And thank goodness for that, because if not we'd be toast every time we entered the ocean.  Defenseless.  Obliterated, even.  Summer beaches on the east coast of America would be littered with bodies, with decapitated heads bobbing in the surf.  Believe me, or at least believe the experts: If they really wanted us, we wouldn't stand a chance.

The gray whales of San Ignacio lagoon have learned as well.  In an amazingly brief amount of time they have learned, and are teaching their young, to be wary no more of the strange (and in the past, violent) terrestrial beings in the boat.  Our floating, blubber-processing ships have been replaced with the 15-foot skiffs called pangas.  Our harpoons have been traded for cameras.

We humans have evolved.  We have learned.  In this day and age, it's the way life should be.

Peter J. Palmer


  1. loved the new blog! i want to get to San Ignacio! but, since i can't , your blog is as close to it as anything! love, mom

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