Nature’s Course: A scene from San Ignacio

In the early morning fog, the only sound I hear is the dip of my paddle into the water and the cry of seabirds huddled on the sandbars. As the sun parts the mist, birds will begin to hunt, and I will take a panga full of excited tourists out to see whales; but this gray before sunlight is my own. It is when I become part of the landscape.

For fifteen years I have worked as a resident naturalist in the gray-whale sanctuary of San Ignacio Lagoon, in Baja, Mexico, working to educate and enlighten people not just about the whales that migrate there, but also about the fragile ecosystem that encompasses the entire lagoon. I work in a panga, an open, outboard-powered fishing boat, but I spend my off hours in a kayak.

For me it’s the most unobtrusive way to experience one of the last wildernesses on earth. San Ignacio Lagoon lies within the confines of the Viscaíno Biosphere, a two-million-hectare nature preserve that covers almost a quarter of Baja and stretches from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean.

It is a model for environmental protection. Most people see only the exotic and adventurous side of my job, but there is also occasional heartache. In February 2011, I had one such experience.

Private boats of any kind, including kayaks, are not allowed in the channels the whales frequent, but the labyrinth of mangroves that surrounds the lagoon, while open to the public, is rarely visited and has become my private place. Weeks may pass without another person entering this area.

It is so isolated that the countless seabirds that occupy this land have ceased taking flight at my approach. Coyotes asleep in the ice plant barely acknowledge my presence, and even a skittish desert fox sat and watched with curiosity as I glided past him.

Once, while stopped to have a sandwich, a brown pelican landed next to me to inspect and peck at my deck bungee before becoming bored and leaving. It is the silence of a kayak that gives me this access.

The sun was making inroads, burning off the sea mist, and I pointed my bow across the channel to head into work when I spotted a rare sea lion with its flippers stretched above the water.

These sea mammals get cold quickly while in the water and must hold their very thin flippers up, out of the water, to catch the sun’s rays between dives. While thermal regulating in this way they appear to be waving at passersby.

I quit paddling and drifted right alongside this sea lion. It was not just sleeping, but snoring quite loudly. I floated by within inches, trying not to laugh and startle him, and passed without him being aware of my presence. Had I disturbed the water with my paddle he would have crash-dived long before I reached him.

Midway across the channel I saw an all too familiar sight, one that I always hate to see: a dead whale. The carcass had been brought into shallow water by the tide. We naturalists call them floaters.

They’re sometimes victims of a ship strike or predator attack, but most likely they’ve died of natural causes. The position and condition of this body offered me no obvious clues to the cause of death. I had seen numerous floaters over the years, but always in the main channels, never here in the shallows.

Since we record all such incidences, I paddled over and could see from the deterioration that this whale had been there a couple of days. The sun, crabs and seabirds make quick work of such bounty. At high tide it had floated, then had run aground at low tide, coming to rest on its side in about three to four feet of water.

I took a couple quick photos before I noticed a baby whale approach from behind the carcass. It was almost barnacle free, meaning it was a newborn. It was too young to have been weaned, a process that can take several months. Gray whales are not known for adopting orphans as humpbacks and especially orcas do, so this one’s fate was pretty much sealed.

Grays are born with little natural instinct and must be taught by their mothers how to survive and socialize. This baby must have been in agony with hunger and exhaustion. It was emitting a wheezing sound I had never heard from young whales.

It head-butted its mother in a hopeless attempt to coax her back to life. There are no predators within the lagoon, so it didn’t need it to be protected, but without its mother, it would quickly starve to death.

It swam back and forth past its mother’s body, clouding the water as its tail stirred up the sandy bottom, nudging her, then coming toward me.

I was about ten feet away in water that was slightly deeper, yet still shallow enough that a live adult whale never would have gone there. High tide had brought the body in, and the baby had followed.

There was barely enough water for the baby to swim in, and the tide was still receding. My first instinct was to back paddle from the carcass and get clear of the baby. I had no idea what a grieving calf would do, especially in such limited space, but I could not bring myself to leave.

In San Ignacio Lagoon gray whales regularly approach boats. This learned behavior is something mothers pass on to their offspring. I thought this whale too young to have learned this, and as it swam up to my kayak I decided it simply needed attention.

Gray whales are the most affectionate of almost 80 species of cetaceans. I have seen countless examples of the bond between mothers and calves. Mothers constantly nuzzle their young while showing them off to people who come out to see them in tour pangas.

They place the babies on their stomachs or hold them up on pectoral fins as if to say, “Look what I created!” They bring them up to our boats to be petted. There is no other place I know of where this interaction between wild animals and humans exists.

When babies tire of swimming, they climb onto their mothers’ backs to sleep, but only for a couple minutes. A mother gray whale will spyhop—stick her head out of the water to look around—and estimate the time it would take a predator to reach her from the horizon, and that is how long she will allow her young charge to sleep.

The calf came directly beneath my kayak, staring up at me while I stroked its head. It did not push or threaten to capsize me. It was simply a youngster who had lost its mother and sought any affection it could get.

I ran my hand along the curve of its mouth, as this sometimes makes them open and allow their baleen to be stroked, a touch they seem to enjoy, but this youngster would not cooperate. It had a deep nick on its back, telling me it had already met a boat propeller, a common occurrence for such friendly animals who have grown accustomed to power boats.

I have petted hundreds of whales over the years in this lagoon but it was always in the context of my job, taking people out to interact with them in controlled areas. On this morning I had become a surrogate mother—or at least my kayak had. I guessed this infant was young enough to equate the size and shape of my boat to its mother.

I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do. This sad situation was the law of nature.

I thought back to the morning when my own mother had died and soon had tears streaming down my cheeks. I watched the young whale quietly lying on the surface next to me, seeking whatever solace I might give it. It rubbed against my hull, and I stroked its head.

I lost track of time as the young whale swam back and forth from its mother to my kayak, looking up at me with eyes I saw pleading for me to do something. Eventually I had to turn away or be overcome by the situation, so I paddled into very shallow water where the youngster could not follow me, although it tried, and looking back I saw it resume its vigil around the carcass of its mother.

I had to leave because I had clients to take out on the water. I got on the water early the next day and paddled back to the shallows, expecting to find a second floating body, but there was none.

I paddled the shoreline for miles searching through binoculars until I found the young whale. It was swimming from female to female. Most had calves of their own, and the orphan was being turned away by all of them. In all my years on the water I have only seen one female gray whale with two calves and have no idea if one was adopted or simply being tolerated. I have never known of another naturalist who had documented a gray mother with an adopted calf.

On the third morning I paddled out expecting to find the calf weak and starving. I quickly spotted and identified it from the prop-strike scar on its back. It was swimming alongside a young female, going into the deeper channels where I was not allowed to paddle. The pair headed toward the mouth of the lagoon and the entrance to the vast Pacific.

I have no words to describe what I felt at that moment. All logic aside, I wanted and needed to believe that young whale had found a new mother.

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