Where Whales and Humans Are Friends

mamma and baby whale.jpg

The waters of San Ignacio lagoon were calm and we were calm when we returned to them after our lunch on a sunny deserted island to head back to camp. But our well-fed somnambulance was soon disturbed. “A whale! 3 o’clock, 3 o’clock,” someone cried, as for the first time a gigantic adult swam up alongside us about ten feet from the boat, her blow holes and mottled skin visible. It had taken me a while to learn the visuals of gray whale anatomy, partly because they do not have fins on their backs, but a series of knuckles, visible vertebrae which, in addition to blow holes, tell you which side is up. Their nostrils sit undaintily on the tops of their heads, ridged exposures that allow you to navigate visually forward and down to the huge jaws that open into baleen lined mouths, the baleen shorter and more bristly than I expected, looking and feeling like a cross between teeth and several layers of old tattered shower curtain. From the whale’s mouth, you look slightly up and back to find an eye (I have never seen two eyes at once, in spite of having looked at hundreds of whales!), and from eye to ear, the least easily located anatomical feature.

And here she was, blowholes and barnacles, with fluke and head beneath the water. Now that I really recalled what they look like, I could orient myself to them again. I had been unpleasantly jolted when I recently read this description of a gray whale: “Among the most ancient of all the whales, grays are also by far the homeliest, their gunmetal bulks encrusted with barnacles and lice and the crisscrossed scars of everything from orca attacks to the blades of boat propellers” (Charles Siebert, “Watching Whales Watching Us.” The New York Times, July 8, 2009). I was shocked to read this because I find them so very beautiful, but yes, the writer’s description is accurate, I suppose—and he, having visited many species of whales, has a basis for comparison that I do not have.

If you’re lucky, you may get the opportunity to rub the whale’s baleen, something that seems to be a particular pleasure for them, rather like us humans having our necks massaged. The whale is swimming alongside the boat, angles its head towards you, gently opens its mouth so that you see the baleen. If you’re feeling brave, as I most often and sometimes foolishly am, you put your hand inside the whale’s mouth. If you are going to do a decent baleen scrub, you put your forearm inside the whale’s mouth because it is a very big mouth. I at least can’t help but have that one moment when I imagine what might happen if the whale hiccupped. But the whale never does, you are never crushed or dragged out to sea, much less carried under and drowned. Rather the whales treat us with the utmost gentle care. I think they are more careful than I am when I carry a spider out of the house, more patient and calm, less twitchy.

We gathered that evening for dinner and whale talk in the mess tent, and we had the first of many conversations about what it’s like to be with these huge others. After dinner, Terry, owner of the tour company with twenty years of experience in Baja, talked about the whales, pointing to the charts and introducing us to some of the science, some of the lore, and some of the uncharted spaces in between the two. He reported that a Canadian visitor had been vehement in stating that humans should never touch wild animals because it’s bad for them, it habituates them, and that could make them less competent in the wild. Terry asked her if she had touched a whale. “Yes,” she had said.

And yes, say I, for when we touch each other, we are changed by that, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin us. I am inclined to question the reasoning that always has humans as agents and other animals as objects affected by the agentic humans. I have come to think that we and they are agents interacting. Caution is good, but so is contact, so is care, so is the awakening in each that the other brings.