Terry Prichard paws furiously at the sand as a wave of sea foam
engulfs his hands and legs in a champagne hiss. The sand is thick
as cement and refuses to yield what looks like a driftwood stump
embedded in the beach.
But it isn’t driftwood. It is actually the half-buried skull of
an adult gray whale that perished on the longest oceanic migration
of any mammal species 6,000 miles one way from the frozen waters of
the Bering Sea to these warm, shallow lagoons of the western Baja
“In any other part of Baja, you’d never see this,” says
Prichard, a tall, lanky man, who looks more like a young Abraham
Lincoln than a sea kayak guide with nearly two decades of
experience along this forgotten coast. “Day trippers or fishermen
would have dug it out and hauled it away in a pickup truck to
decorate their yard.”
He walks backward as the surf roils over the skull.
“But not here. I’m willing to bet that since last year’s group
camped nearby, we’re the only people to leave footprints on this
beach,” he says. Wilderness and whales are the two reasons that 14
other sea kayakers and I joined Prichard on this six-day, 50-mile
expedition down the inland waterways of Magdalena Bay. Every
February and March in these quiet lagoons, as many as 20,000 gray
whales congregate at the terminus of their 12,000-mile roundtrip
journey. They come to these warm waters to mate and give birth to
over 1,500 calves.
The Mexican government strictly limits whale watching around the
lagoons, prohibiting private boats and large commercial operators.
Apart from hopping on permitted fishing boats at the southern tip
of the bay, the only way to see these whales up close along the
150-mile sand-dune and mangrove coastline of Magdalena Bay, is to
set out by sea kayak. Sea Kayak Adventures has one of two permits
given out by the government to conduct such expeditions.
Much to the delight of whale watchers, the Baja grays seem to
enjoy their own brand of interactive play, often nudging boats full
of tourists and sometimes lifting a boat completely from the water
on their backs.
The promise of a close encounter is what inspires our kayaking
group, a typical cross section of a sport growing in popularity.
Among the paddlers on this trip are a mother and daughter sharing a
birthday present, the owner of a San Diego dive shop, a retired
ex-pat couple living in Mexico, a British physics professor and two
sisters from Idaho.
The personal encounters with whales that we all envision a
40-foot leviathan surfacing in a vaporous exhalation close enough
to touch exists, for the time being at least, only in our
imaginations. We keep our eyes peeled while paddling just inside a
series of sand-duned barrier islands that separate the rough waters
of the Pacific from the mangrove-lined mainland coast, but the
whales stay in the deep waters off the coast.
The paddling is relatively easy, but wet. As the days go by, my
hair gets crusty from evaporated saltwater and sweat, and my bare
arms freckle and darken. We fall into the quiet rhythm of
expedition kayaking. Break camp after breakfast, paddle several
hours along the dunes, eat a light lunch and paddle some more in
the afternoon before slipping into a quiet cove for camp. Hauling
out 22-foot-long fiberglass boats full of tents, sleeping bags,
food and cooking gear, is the most demanding task of the day.
When the boats are safely beached for the day and tents are up,
the camp eases into an extended happy hour relaxing around a
driftwood campfire. Most of the paddlers also make the 15-minute
trek over the dunes to beachcomb on the wide Pacific shores where
drifts of tiger augers, calico scallops and Indian tomahawk
seashells are scattered brightly among the mats of seaweed like
Neptune’s polished toenails.
One evening between a mug of warm tequila and Baja midnight that
hour between dusk and darkness I find myself several miles down an
empty beach. I cut back to camp through the maze of sand dunes and
discover an oceanic graveyard washed up among the braids of
high-tide flotsam. Sea turtle carapaces, bleached and worn by
waves, catch the fading light, while the grinning, wolf-like skulls
of sea lions smile into nothingness. Among a field of whale
vertebrae the size of school desks, I even find the complete
carcass of a gray whale calf, mouth agape and sunken plum eyes. I
am reminded why the fishermen who patrol this lonely shore
sometimes call it Baja’s Skeleton Coast.
The days slide by, and the whales continue to elude us. Every
time we cross a boca, or lagoon mouth, that leads to the open
ocean, we catch distant glimpses of silver plumes on the horizon,
grays still on the move south. The whales stay out just beyond our
reach, sometimes sounding with an explosive burst of air, now and
then stirring up huge clouds of silt as they hunt for mollusks on
the sea bed.
Mexican regulations prohibit us from approaching the whales, so
we hug the coast, patient but frustrated. Prichard, however, has an
arrangement with local fishermen near our take-out site. They have
permits to take tourists whale watching. On our last day, we pile
into two dories and head out deep into the rough waters of the
boca. There are whales all around us, but they still seem shy, and
we only catch the mist of a blow, or the flash of coal-black fluke
as it cuts the jade chop.
When our two hours are up and we turn to head back, our captain
Leonardo hollers with joy.
“I know this one,” he says, pointing frantically at a fading
cloud of vapor. “He likes boats.”
Leonardo eases off the outboard and points at my Nikons wrapped
in plastic garbage bags to protect them against the heaving
“Get your cameras ready,” he says. “This one, he will come to
say hello.” And he does. In the time it takes the dory to rise and
fall on single swell, a white-barnacled head looms into view
directly beneath. The rest of the whale, twice the length of our
20-foot dory, rises from the depths. The green water surges over
his car-sized snout, and the whale, acting more like a curious
puppy, nudges our boat with a hissed exhalation. People topple off
seats and the boat nearly swamps.
An eye the size of an eight-ball blinks at us. I lunge forward
and stretch my arm shoulder-deep into the ocean as the boat
see-saws in the surf. And then it happens. For a brief moment, we
connect. The boat falls on a swell and the whale rises against my
hand. My fingers trail over his broad nose and scrape across scabs
of barnacles alive with rice-sized lice. Prichard’s words come back
to me with clarity: “Touching a whale is the closest thing to
touching wilderness there is.”
With a warm, fishy huff, the whale rolls slightly. The boat
rises on a swell and my fingers lift from the water. I reach as far
as I can, pawing at air, but the whale is already gone, a phantom
descending in the gloom.
|SEA KAYAK ADVENTURES|
From its headquarters in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho,
Sea Kayak Adventures operates tours to top whale-watching
destinations in Baja in the winter, and British Columbia in summer.
No prior experience is necessary and the company provides all
equipment. Commission is 10 percent.