The ‘Skeleton Coast’

Sea kayaking in search of Baja’s gray whales

By: Jad Davenport

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 California Peninsula.

“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 waves.

“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.
800-616-1943
www.seakayakadventures.com
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