It was a magical day.
I opened my eyes to a red rim on the eastern horizon. Out of my other window I watched the nearly full moon set into the pale blue sky, casting its reflection on the lagoon, as it sank behind the spit of land and the Pacific Ocean further on. The pair of nesting osprey were in their nest. One was settled into the nest protecting the eggs and the other was perched on the edge, on high alert. If you were very quiet, and listened very carefully, you could hear a curiously strange sound of whooshing air.
In Guerrero Negro, I filled my gas tank, replenished my cash, and bought an amazing double cappuccino at the last café on the way out of town. After a brief cruise down Mexico Highway 1, I hit the Laguna Ojo de Liebre turnoff, and 15 miles of dirt road through the saltworks. The lagoon is only open to the public for whale watching from January through March, when the gray whales are calving. The saltworks, more important to the local economy thank the whale watching, produces about six million tons of salt per year on the 70 square mile parcel of land that surrounds the lagoon. The road to the lagoon is straight and riddled with washboards, so I put mi Casita Lunita in second gear, took my foot off the gas, kicked back, and enjoyed both my cappuccino and the view as it rolled by my window.
The literal translation of Ojo de Liebres is the eye of the red-eyed jackrabbit. The name is a direct reference to the wholesale slaughter of the whales when they returned to the lagoon to calve, slaughter that turn the clear blue waters red with blood. It is also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, the whaler who first discovered the plethora of whales in the lagoon – and killed them for their oil. The lagoon is now part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, which was created in 1988, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. There are only three places in the world where gray whales give birth, all in Baja. More than one-half of all gray whales are born in this lagoon. They begin to arrive in mid-December and by the end of April they have all left on their journey Alaska. The numbers fluctuate year to year, but the overall numbers are generally increasing from a low of 769 in 2000/2001, to a high of 2,280 in 2003/2004, the last year that numbers were posted.
I arrived at the entry gate after a five-hour drive from Bahia Los Angeles. The last 15 miles consumed one and one half hours of that. I paid my 65 pesos (about $4.50) and proceeded north to the secluded end of the campground. There was a cluster of palapas near the entrance, filled with groups of people and dogs and random motorized vehicles. One palapa was lit up like Christmas, the sign on the wall announced, “The Party is Here.” Happily, my friends Denise and Steve had clued me into the layout of the campground. They encouraged me to drive through the party and on to the outskirts of town where the perfect campsite, site number six, awaited. It was peaceful, beautiful, and far from the crowd.
I arrived early for the 9:00 a.m. departure and was lucky enough to join the first panga to leave the dock. There were only five passengers and our captain Rafael. Rafael was the attractive man who greeted me at the gate the afternoon before, and encouraged me to get on the first boat out the next morning. He turned out to be a sweet, patient, and gentle driver. He was a man of few words, but his respect and appreciation for the whales was apparent in the manner which he maneuvered the boat quietly amongst them. Within moments of leaving the dock we spotted our first whale. I realized that the whoosh of air I had heard that morning was the breathing of whales a few miles away.
All my life I’ve been fascinated by whales but I have never been “up close and personal.” This day was a thrill like no other. The further we crept into the heart of the lagoon, the more whales surfaced, until finally there was not a direction you could look and not see a whale. The lagoon was teeming with whales, breathing, breaching, lobtailing, diving under the boat, swimming alongside, swimming solo, and mommas swimming with their babies on their flanks. We wanted nothing more desperately than to be able to reach out and touch a whale, but seemingly, they didn’t desire our affections.
Finally, as I was on the verge of giving up hope, a momma and her baby passed underneath us. She turned around, dove a bit deeper, and approached the boat. She then let out a big burst of air that nearly lifted out boat out of the water and surfaced. The baby stayed well out of reach, but momma pressed against the boat, allowing us to reach out and touch her. I was out of reach, so Rafael urged me to the back of the boat by the motor. I reached over and caressed her, speaking to her gently as if she were my Sweet Luna. Slowly, she rolled to her side and gazed directly into my eyes. Then, she lifted her head out of the water, lifting her face to mine, her beautiful eyes responding to my words.
I floated back to mi Casita, rescued Luna, and the two of us went skinny-dipping in the crystal clear waters of the lagoon. Sometimes I feel quite like a whale. Eons ago, whales were semi-aquatic land mammals who tired of the rat race and wandered off into the sea.
“But the ocean doesn’t want me today…”