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First Published in Whoosh! The Zine for Whale Lovers.
Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez
I had read somewhere that blue whales are believed to mate and calve in the Sea of Cortez next to Baja during the late winter and early spring. Joseph and I spent a week in Loreto tracking down one of the world’s experts on blue whales, Fernando Arcas, and were finally lucky enough to spend an unforgettable day on the water with him.
We met Fernando on the dock at 8 o’clock in the morning. Dozens of pelicans were dive bombing the harbor as they gobbled swarming fish. The wooden pier was so slippery with bird poop that my flip flops squished as I inched my way to the 15-foot fiberglass panga belonging Fernando. His boat looked just like any other Mexican fishing boat – white, no cover, Honda motor, except for one thing - he had welded a 10-foot tall crow’s nest into the bow of it, like the kind you’d see in the top of sailboats in the olden days, so one person could climb up there, and spot whales ahoy! Within minutes of pulling out of the dock, the crow’s nest became my favorite place on the boat. I felt like a cross between a pirate and an actual whale scientist perched up there.
The sea was flat and dark turquoise. Perfect conditions for whale spotting. The surrounding mountains looked like the platonic ideal of what desert mountains should be, all jagged and layered on top of each other in varying shades of thirsty brown.
We rode for ten minutes, and then Fernando turned off the motor. There was a long island on our left and the Baja peninsula on our right with about a mile of water between us in either direction. We had been scanning for whales as we drove, but Fernando said it was sometimes easiest to find them by listening.
Surely enough, no more than 15 seconds passed before we heard our first “Whooooooosh!” I had heard whales blow before. But this sound was different. This blue whale blow was super deep, making every other whale blow I’d heard sound wimpy and high.
Blue whales are so enormous, it is impossible to comprehend their size using numbers alone. They are the biggest animal that has ever lived. That’s bigger than the biggest dinosaurs. They have tongues the size of elephants and hearts the size of small cars. If you were leaning out of the 3rd story window of a building and a blue whale swam by below and blew, you’d feel (and smell) the fishy mist of its breath on your face.
We saw the mist from the blow settling about ¼ mile away and sped toward it to get closer to the whale before it dove under. Whales don’t rush, and this one was no exception. It was still coming up and up and up when we reached it. School bus length stretches of blue and gray speckled whale back slid by below us, displacing tons of water as it moved until a tail the width of our boat rose up into the air and it sounded.
Twenty leisurely waves of a blue whale’s tail can propel it to a distance you have to squint to see. Sure enough, 5 minutes and probably 20 tail wiggles later, it came up for air a mile away. Again, we had heard it before we saw it and sped toward it. And missed. But here is where Fernando’s invaluable expertise came into play. He’s been chasing these whales around since 1982. And he’s got extremely good whale juju, which counts for a lot in whale world. He guessed where the whale would come up next, shot over there, and we scored. It came up right by our boat. I had offered to take id shots for Fernando with his digital camera. I kept it on continuous shoot as the whale came up and up and up. But 30 frames of continuous shoot later, I had to look away from the viewfinder to confirm that the whale really was there, because it seemed impossible it could still be surfacing. Its wet breath settled on our sun-kissed shoulders as it finally disappeared again, leaving a slick footprint in its wake that stayed there for a long time. We waited hopefully in silence.
Imagine yourself holding a sardine by the tail and smacking it against the surface of the water. Now imagine the sound of 10,000 sardines slapping against the water. That’s what we heard next – a fish ball. Something had gotten all 10,000 or so of these little fish worked up into a tizzy and now they were tightly packed together into a big tight silver ball in an effort to protect themselves from whatever external threat had gotten them so scared.
A conga line of dolphins appeared on the horizon and headed toward it. We dropped our hydrophone into the water to listen to the chatter. They were strangely silent. Birds somehow got wind that a fish ball was here and got in on the action. The squawks of the birds as they wheeled and dove added to the slapping sounds. Fish balls smell like the pier after a good day on the water.
We heard two blows above the cacophony. Two blue whales had come up side by side in the distance. We zoomed toward them. It is rare to see two blue whales together, although they communicate across the ocean to each other using subsonic moans which travel up to 5000 miles. Who knows what they say? “Hello, this is Bluey #1 in Scotland paging Bluey #2 in Argentina. There’s some goooood eatin’ in these parts, pop on by,” reverberates through undiscovered deep sea canyons. Obviously these two had gotten each other’s messages.
I gave up trying not to anthropomorphize whales when I was a researcher on Vancouver Island at the rubbing beach for orcas in Johnstone Straight. A regular volunteer was abruptly dismissed after a long tenure. Paid scientists on staff thought little of her work because she had names for the whales that weren’t the usual system of letters and numbers and she talked about the orcas’ various personalities. It just sounded bad to have her saying things through the radio such as “Lucy’s having a lot of fun out there with her friends today” instead of “K38 is demonstrating social behavior with 2 subadults also believed to be from Pod K.” As the scientist told me the story of her dismissal, I was glad I had bitten my tongue about the saucy behavior I’d noted in one of the females earlier that day.
Whale scientists do have a deep and awesome love of whales which provokes them to dedicate their low paid lives to mind numbing data analysis alternated with hours of rocking back and forth in a boat in the middle of nowhere waiting for something to happen. Ninety eight percent of a whale researcher’s job is robotic tedium. But the other 2% is witnessing awesome, rare marine events in first person. However, there is a code of conduct which gets bashed into scientists during their internships and grad school which decrees that they must avoid becoming visibly excited when they see whales. It might skew the data.
I am lousy at nonchalance. Especially when there’s a whale around. Whenever I one, I start yelling, “Awwwww come over hear you big beautiful cutie pie! Oh yes! Yes! Yes! Aren’t you just the prettiest thing!!! I love you! I love you! That’s right sweetheart!” Whale scientists hate this.
Fernando Arcas is different. He was a whale scientist and environmentalist long before it became fashionable, and his seniority allows him to behave as he wants around the sea beasts. He speaks at conferences and to the public extensively about whales and is the go to guy for any significant media group (BBC, national geographic, discovery channel, etc.) who wants to see whales in Loreto. He has traveled around the world and seen every species of whale known to us. He can identify individuals in the Sea of Cortez as easily as most people can pick out a loved one’s profile from a distance in a dark, crowded dance hall.
This kind of familiarity is born of constant, extended contact. Fernando’s been hanging with these big boys every year for over 25 years and he still gets all worked up every time he sees one.
Every time we spotted a whale that day, he gasped and shouted so hard I thought he’d fall overboard. “Yes! Hola! Wow wow wow! She’s Beauuuutiful!!!!” he’d be hollering, as if he’d never seen a whale before. It was fun to be part of a chorus.
Having just returned from San Ignacio Lagoon, which is basically a petting zoo for gray whales, I asked him if he had ever touched a blue whale. They are known for being very shy. He said he hadn’t, but once a baby swam under his boat when he was with a research crew from National Geographic and he ripped all of his clothes off, dove overboard and swam down as hard and fast as he could to try to touch it before anyone else on the boat knew what was happening. He came within inches.
Fernando Arcas has a pact with the sea. He takes care of Loreto Bay. He is a passionate and savvy environmentalist who has successfully transformed the entire area around Loreto into a protected sanctuary. It was scarily over fished and abused until this happened. Now, many species of endangered fish and mollusks, not to mention the charismatic megafauna, are coming back and staying, thanks to his relentless dedication. In exchange, the whales, the fish and everything in between seem to come up to his boat to say hello.
If you go to Loreto and you want to see whales, you must find Fernando. It is true, you could get skunked in your efforts to see a blue whale if you visit the Sea of Cortez in March. If the wind is up, you might not even be able to get onto the water. The whales might decide to hang out elsewhere while you’re there. For the biggest animals the world has ever known, they are mighty elusive.
But if you play your cards right and find Fernando, your chances of smelling whale breath and watching the incomprehensible length of a blue whale pass before you are good.
Fernando Arcas is your key to a successful expedition. He runs a little whale museum and ecology center tucked away on a busy street. It’s chock full of whale bones, underwater whale footage and interesting detritus found on the beach and at sea.
Here is where to find Fernando and his environmentalist colleagues:
Grupo Ecologista Antares, A.C.
Tel/Fax: 610 135 00 86