From: December 23, 2022
Baja California I didn’t want to admit how much I wanted to see whales in the wild in their Pacific Ocean habitat. I didn’t want to jinx it.
I had first seen whales swimming on the western horizon while driving up the California coast in a Ford Econoline van on Highway 1 along the Pacific in late November 1968. I’d bought the van in New Orleans after selling my motorcycle and semi-converted it into a camper, which is to say that a double sleeping bag could fit, and it would hold a Coleman stove and camping equipment, and pretty much everything I owned. The van had Gypsy Wheels hand painted on the door and a red and black strip along the side. The van was going north towards the Bay Area, and the whales were going south for the winter from Alaska and beyond. They were huge black and gray specks on the horizon.
I’d had another chance more than twenty-years ago visiting Samana at the tip of the Dominican Republic with some ACORN leaders from New York, who wanted us to start organizing on the island. It was the wrong season, but I kept my eyes peeled, just in case. My daughter and a couple of her friends had gone out on a boat from Isle de Mujeres, Puerto Rico, and blanked on a trip that she described as horrific with six-foot swells, a broken engine, a rescue boat, and more…and no whales.
Like I said, I didn’t want to jinx it by raising my expectations too high. Sure enough, when we were scheduled to go, one of our team got the revenge, so we had to talk our way into another boat the next day. Keeping my mouth shut, we were early. We puttered out past Pelican Rock and Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas with pelicans, cormorants, sea lions, and more, and then the captain pushed the lever up on the twin 115 HP motors, and we were off into the Pacific. Our guide was a marine biologist, specializing in big mammals, maybe increasing our odds. He warned us that only the huge 50–60-ton humpback whales were migrating now, but none of us would have a complaint, if we were lucky enough to see them.
Next thing you know, we saw the first couple, then farther out another pair, and so it went as we hit paydirt, observing a dozen in various locations over several hours. We would see the spouts or sometimes the tail slapping, and we knew they were there. Some were so close that our children could see them in the water below the boat, but mainly we were past the 180 feet required by the Mexican regulations. The humpbacks rose and fell in the water, then dived for food, sucking the waves out of the face of the water as they went under, and then minutes later coming up a hundred yards farther on their journey. One pair pirouetted in the air to almost full size before splashing below. Their tails were majestic. Their backs sleek black. They were huge, and they were beautiful.
I read Demon Copperhead recently by Barbara Kingsolver, a modern take on Dickens’ David Copperfield. Living in Virginia, Demon’s one dream in life had been to see the ocean. To the degree there was a happy ending, the book closed as he was finally on his way there, after several unsuccessful attempts in his short life. His was a simple, but important dream that many of us would see as commonplace, which would be a mistake. While watching these whales, I couldn’t help thinking if everyone had the chance to see these giant mammals up close, as we were doing now, how different we might all see our place in the world, on the planet, and in the fight to make a better world for all of us creatures on the land, air, and sea.