Courting a Gray Whale: Matters of Essence, Matters of Scale


Photo by Denise Skelton—with gratitude to Denise and my other traveling companions, whose photos reawaken the joy of the journey

I have no idea how long ago I saw film footage of Jacques Cousteau in full diving suit, floating around in front of the eye of a whale, and then the interview in which he spoke of looking into the eye of the whale, seeing and being seen, how it changed him forever. Ever since then, I have wanted to look into the eye of a whale. I had heard that in the Baja lagoons, I would certainly see whales, and perhaps even touch one. But my secret highest hope as I packed for my Baja expedition in February was that I might look into the eye of a whale, that I might experience that seeing and being seen.

On our first launch into Magdalena Bay, the panga (fishing boat) driver told us to put our hands into the water and splash vigorously as this would attract whales. Monica, the ex-dolphin trainer, whistled a particular whistle. We had been out for almost two hours and were approaching our time allotment when finally, and to our great excitement, a whale approached. I was at the prow, that part of the boat with the greatest distance to water, when the whale swam up and under. I hung over the boat such that I was almost hanging by my ankles with my own whale-like portions high in the air when a I got my first feel, my first kinesthetic and proprioceptive sense of a whale. A gray whale is big, and that’s what I felt first. In fact, its scary, but I hung as far over as I dared (having been warned not to attempt an actual dive into the water). What a way to die! The whale’s fluke, powerful and not at all soft, brushed my hand as he dove under the boat on that first outing. The thrill of contact. Yes!

Let me pause here to consider matters of scale. An adult female Pacific Gray whales is roughly 8 times my length and 300 times my weight, that is, she is larger than me on a grand scale, akin to me standing next to a squirrel. Her commute is on a grand scale, too, roughly six thousand miles, one way. And the time scale of her life is vastly greater, too, she never sleeps because she has to think about breathing constantly, and she eats only during the summer, and not while making her long commute, and not for the months of birthing and nursing. Her nursing allows her baby, born headfirst at about 1,500 pounds, to gain 200 pounds a day for the period of its infancy in the Baja lagoons. Her vocabulary has not been deciphered but bioacoustics suggest that she likely speaks in low frequency ranges that carry over many miles, maybe even hundreds of miles in the water. In almost every imaginable way, this whale and I live in almost unimaginably different magnitudes.

I decided to ditch my camera and just give the experience itself my everything. Let the story be recorded in my cells, in my heart’s memory. That night, under black velvet sky, I could hear the whales breathing as they swam the lagoon, swimming all night and all day without sleeping, and breathing in the quiet dark. That roundest of sounds, “bPuwwwhhh;wHa!” Can it be? Am I listening to whales breathing by starlight?

The next day, there were high winds and waves and many whales, accompanied by a great many dolphins, who like gray whale breast milk quite a lot, and so like to be there when its released into the water. The day was cold and wet and wonderful; bouncing on the tops of waves, I got a face full of musty “blow.” I began to whistle what became my own distinctive whale whistle, and one toddler whale liked it very much. She came to the boat and I leaned over and touched the whole length of her as she positioned herself for just that contact before swimming under to the other side of the boat. There were eight of us going crazy with childlike delight, petting this playful baby whale. By the next day, she came when I whistled, gently turned the boat around in a circle, seeming very pleased with herself.

Over my few days there, I got everything I wanted, everything I’d remotely dreamed of, including an encounter with a “boat-hugger,” one of the whales who swims quietly up under the boat and lifts it out of the water. I had so wanted to feel that. But not everyone wanted to feel it. In fact, it was scary and the panga driver tore the hell out of there as soon as the whale set us down. Is that what the whale wanted? Was the whale sick of intrusion, wanting to feel his power, just having some playful fun? Certainly, he could easily have killed us, but didn’t even jostle our equipment. In fact, he was the essence of gentleness, inviting us to relax if we could relax with someone who is 300 times our size, much as I might pick up a puppy.

The main event for me, though, was courting this little whale, Barbilla Blanca, who courted me, too. (It's always so satisfying when a courtship is mutual.) I’d whistle and time after time, she came, not just to the boat, but to me. My fellow travelers gave me the name Holds Hands with Whales, after this baby turned and seemed to offer her fin to my hand. I was so overjoyed that it took me a minute to register that she was putting her eye up top, she wanted to see me! I whisked my sunglasses off of my face, and then looked into the eye of the whale. I did it again and again, same whale, every day. And she wanted to look into my eyes, she had to position herself just so for it to happen. This is what I cannot forget, and it is whale lore, too. People who have looked into the eye of the whale say that it changes you. It does.

And I put my hand into the mouth of this whale, gave her stiff baleen screen a good rubbing, even though I had to not shrink from her powerful jaw and muscular huge tongue. But I got a sense of her with her long jaw and its whiskers, her double blow holes, her flippers and her spinal knobs, her white chin and mighty fluke; I got a feel for how one might live in such a body, live in such a house of water and air, dolphins and stars, red dawns and black nights, and toy boats full of noisy little animals to play with.

Finally, on my last trip in the panga, I whistled and she came to the boat, this little whale that people were calling Ballerina because she loved to pirouette in the water. Jessica and I called her Barbilla Blanca, little White Chin, for her very distinctive chin splotch. Jessica, our marine biologist had told us that she’d dreamed during the night of kissing whales. As she whistled, “my” whale went right to her and came out of the water for a kiss. Then she came to me and came out of the water for my kiss, a full face-plant, after days of gazing into one another’s eyes.

That whale kiss happened almost a month ago and I have thought of Barbilla every day, prayed for her every day, held imaginary conversations with her, remembered my own time of going out into the world on the cusp of toddlerhood and early childhood, how amazing it is, how engaging, how much you must learn, and how quickly—in my day, how to tie your shoes, and tell time, and take a bus, how to memorize your phone number and address, and how to call home, and how to read books and make friends, how to write your name, then someone else’s name, how to gather seeds from flowers, and then to plant them, how not to knock the dust from a butterflies wings, not to take candy from strangers. My God, it’s busy time of life! And she is learning her whaley version of life intensely and in a similar developmental burst of demand as she swims with her mom, not in the peaceful warm lagoon of her infancy and toddlerhood, but in the Pacific Ocean for about six thousand miles to the place where she will eat her first solid food. One day she will have to swim past Monterey, where the orcas wait with their playbook of strategies to separate mother and toddler so that they can eat the little one. And mom is hungry now, not having eaten in months; she might feel the need to take short cuts. Yes, I worry some, but mostly I love Barbilla and always will. I cheer for her; I try to imagine her life, her joys, her challenges, and her fears. Every day I pray for her, every day I encourage her, every day I am made so much larger for knowing her. She is written on the cells of my body, in the memory of my heart. And, on the scale of the heart, we are of equal size.