It was a dark and stormy night….

Oh, wait…. It was a dark and starlit evening on the beach of Isla San José in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

ImageNaturalist Jack Swenson strums his guitar, singing tunes from John Denver, Roger Miller, and Jimmy Buffett. Arrayed around the bonfire are the passengers and crew of the National Geographic Sea Lion. The ship floats just off shore, its deck lights no competition for the embers blowing off the fire or the watchful gaze of Orion from overhead.

It’d been a long day of snorkeling with sea creatures and hiking desert arroyos. One in a stream of days filled with playful gray whale calves cavorting around our zodiacs, breaching humpback whales, bow riding orcas, and hundreds of dolphins. Yet our journey is only halfway done. There was much more to come for all of us: the retired teachers, the “Michigan Mafia” (really just a group of IT workers from the University of Michigan), the Washington State University couple who have brought along their stuffed cougar mascot (for photo ops of course), the older gentleman who plays solitaire every afternoon while his wife watches (quite a hiker he turned out to be!), the father and daughter from Singapore, the ship’s doctor and his wife, the two sisters – one of whom still bears black eyes from a trip and fall in the Cabo airport, the fellow Pepsi lovers, and the veterinarian.

And it had been a trying day, for me anyway. But I refused to let the migraine trying to establish itself behind my right eye prevent me from enjoying the company of my fellow travelers. And enjoyable they were. Sharing photography tips, keeping a watchful eye out for those of us more timid snorkelers, laughing over beers and stories of travels, and suggesting future trips (as if my dream destination list isn’t already long enough!)

For now, our barbecue over, marshmallows being roasted over the fire, and Jack’s smooth voice floating across the sand and water, we relax and settle quietly in each other’s company far from home. Image

How I Got Sneezed on by a Whale

ImageGiven humanities’ often violent history with whales, it can be difficult to understand why whales would want anything at all to do with us.

But in Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, not only are the whales friendly, they’re trusting and curious. Which is especially impressive considering the lagoon is one of the key nurseries for the Gray Whale, and it is believed that some of the whales who return here every year to spend the winter may be old enough to remember being hunted.

Yet, as we float in our zodiacs, cameras held ready, the whales slowly circle their way around, deciding if they’re going to check us out. Mothers gently nudge their month-old calves toward us; other calves approach us on their own, though mother is never far behind. They spy hop, drop back under the gentle waves, spy hop again. Soon they are within touching distance and cameras are largely forgotten as we reach out to touch them, to pet them. They seem to like it, rubbing against the boat, even pushing the boat around like it was a bathtub toy. They return again and again, circling the boat, diving under it, rolling on their side to turn an eye up to look at us.

Whale eyes are dark, captivating. ImageTheir skin feels like a wet, somewhat overripe eggplant (except where they are covered by barnacles which feel while a really rough stucco wall). And they taste very salty. Yes, I kissed the whale! (Three times) At one point I was leaning so far out of the zodiac, one of the other tourists grabbed hold of my feet to keep me from falling out.

Our pangero, the fisherman who guided the expedition, said our visitor had not been named yet, so we decided to call her “Berta” (could be “Bert” of course – who can tell?) Berta spent quite some time with us, entertaining us, seeming to revel in the touch of human hands. Could she hear our laughter and delighted squeals? I think so. And I think she was having fun too. All of the calves were – one of the other zodiacs had two calves pushing each other out of the way to get to the people. I imagine Berta was laughing herself when she rose one last time and with a “spouf” of breath, sneezed all over me from her blowhole.

Two weeks later, it’s almost like my trip was a dream, but I will never forget Berta’s eyes. And I hope that Berta will never forget the human ambassadors who came to visit her birthplace and that, in time, Berta will be nudging her own calf toward a hopeful boat full of people who dream of simply touching a whale. Or getting sneezed on by one.