Día de las Ballenas.
Up early and out across the salt flats before the sun was up.
Books and former visitors to Ojo de Liebre had said we could just camp on the beach. They’d also said we could negotiate with the panga operators to take us out to see the whales.
All that has changed. There are palapas set back from the lagoon, all numbered, and campers choose one and stay there. Tents are acceptable, but the only campers we saw had truck campers or mini motorhomes. The wind was more than I would have wanted to deal with in a tent, so we stayed in town at a motel that was more than the guidebook said it would be.
No more meeting the panga operators and arranging a tour, either. There is now a welcome center and ticket office. Tours cost $500P or US $40. There is also a small restaurant, a gift shop, and one more room that I couldn’t quite figure out. We had looked at it the day before, on our short visit.
Loud music came from the room. A man who appeared to be the manager said it was the band. He opened the door for us and flipped on a light. There was terribly loud music and a big screen TV on which the words to the song appeared, sort of a sing along, I suppose. We were invited to enter the band room, but it was viscously loud and we declined.
We arrived this morning at the lagoon before eight, having been told tours left at eight, or nine, or maybe eight-thirty. Mind you, it was the man who appeared to manage the little welcome center who told us the three different times. We opted to arrive early rather than miss the boat, literally.
We had driven out under gray skies that threatened rain. The salt flats took on a more lunar landscape in the dim light. We arrived just in time to chat with a few other tourists (a gringo from Mexico and a Mexican who lived in the US). Then it was time to buy our tickets and make a last minute trip to the best outdoor toilet I’ve ever been in – it was on the second floor and had a tall window across the whole front that looked out at the lagoon. We then donned our life vests and boarded.
Our little boat had only six passengers. Leopoldo started the motor, and we were off. In just a few minutes we were in deep lagoon and could see whales in the distance. Closer, closer. Gray whales were all around us!
At first I tried to take photos but realized I was looking at this majesty through a viewfinder rather than watching them live. I put the camera away.
Leopoldo moved us close in to a whale a number of times, but each time the whale moved away. Although for over sixteen years it’s been a dream of mine to touch a whale, I realized that to be this close was perfect. If I didn’t touch one, I was still content.
Then we drifted closer to a mama and baby. Mama cut between us and baby, nudging him away from us. But she stuck around.
At first she glided through the water, showing us only her back and the “knuckles” on it. Gray whales have nine to thirteen knuckles on their backs rather than a dorsal fin.
This gray circled the boat and she dove under it. Three or four times she went under the boat and bumped us. Let us know who was really in charge. At 60,000 or more pounds, she likely viewed us as a toy. She drifted aside us and blew water on us all. Then she approached the side.
Cinda and I were on the other end of the boat, the bow, but when the whale moved in Cinda almost ran to the stern. There she was, hanging over the side, petting this thirty-ton mammal that had the power to flip our boat if she so chose.
Then I went to the stern. Mama stayed and let me stroke her back. Slowly, slowly. Up and down her back. Around the barnacles that clung to her and past one of her knuckles.
I was dumbfounded. Her back felt like silk, smooth and soft. I had expected a hide, hard and leathery, firm. Not at all. It almost felt as though I could poke my finger right through her skin.
She let me stroke her repeatedly, then slowly sank below the water’s surface.
She returned to the boat several times, giving everyone aboard a chance to feel whale silk. Even Leopoldo, who grinned as much as the rest of us, pet her.
Leopoldo kept us out overtime. He looked apologetic when his CB came to life and he was called back. He wanted us to stay and fall in love with these whales as deeply as he loved them. But we returned, each of us with huge smiles.
Hours later, I am smiling still.
Día de las Ballenas.