WHOOOSH!! Wow! We are out in a panga in San Ignacio Lagoon and can glimpse an immense body in the water below us. The immensity of gray whales is stunning up close. Females can reach 45 feet and weigh 80,000 pounds – more than 12 times the weight of an elephant. The whale below us dwarfs our 27 foot panga and we are acutely aware that with a flick of her tail, the gray whale could easily capsize our panga and injure or kill us… But she doesn’t. Instead, she nestles up to our boat for a cuddle and kiss and then rolls onto her back so that we can scratch between her fins…
How in the world did these most ferocious of all whales pivot and become cute and cuddly with open arms (so to speak!) with humans, their former predators?? We have to thank Pachico, respected patriarch and grandfather of San Ignacio Lagoon, for taming this last remaining significant population of gray whales…
In 1948, Scripps Institute showed up at San Ignacio Lagoon along with actor Errol Flynn (who was a keen student of marine biology and whose father was a marine biologist at the University of Belfast). Their intent was to produce a documentary film on the gray whales including the use of a helicopter with which they attempted to herd the whales into shallow water where deep dives would be impossible. The helicopter hovered at low altitude behind or beside the grays trying to shepherd them along. Lewis Wayne Walker on the film crew reported;
“After this had been done a few times, we noticed a decided change in whale temperament. Instead of swimming along in a placid manner… the grays churned the water with flukes and fins until their wakes became swirling cauldrons of foam. Before such displays of angry power, the helicopter lifted to a safe altitude.”
The whales were clearly telling the humans to back off. To the point where on the last day of filming, local fishermen were thrown off their feet when a gray whale rammed their fishing boat. The initial strike was the hardest of the attack and it seemed that only the lightweight and extreme buoyancy of the skiff prevented the whale from caving in the side of the boat. The whale continued to batter the fishing boat until the water became too shallow for the gray to continue harassing the fishermen.
1956. Cardiologist Dr. Paul Dudley White attempted to record the heartbeat of a gray whale using small darts. The whale charged and smashed their boat, knocking off the rudder and propellor and bending the driveshaft at a 45 degree angle with one blow from his tail. He then turned around and charged again, smashing in the side of thereat.
1960’s. Jacques Cousteau decided to chase female grey whales with his zodiac to get film footage. After several hours, the whale turned, breached and landed on top of the rubber boat, destroying it. Yayyhghhhhh. Well deserved!!
So what changed?? Well, everyone who lives around the Lagoon will tell you that it had to do with abuelo (grandfather) Francisco (Pachico) Mayoral.
1972. Pachico was out alone in his panga, fishing for grouper when a gray whale surfaced beside him. Local fishermen were well acquainted with the whales, very aware of the gray whale’s power and ferocious temperament and like everyone else in San Ignacio Lagoon, he always tried to keep a cautious distance. He was surprised when the animal lingered and felt himself compelled to place a hand in the water. The whale rubbed against him, remaining almost motionless… And that was the beginning.
Pachico explained in an interview “the whales” he said, planting a hand over his heart, “they are my family. I have not the words to express. The rest of my life since, I have activity with the scientists, the tourists, and the whales. The whales enter the lagoon and come to me… You see, I have a position. The whales, they are my family”.
The timing was extraordinary. The first time a gray whale made the first friendly overtures to a Mexican fisherman was the same year, 1972, that the Mexican government decreed a “Reserve and Refuge Area for Migratory Birds and Wildlife” at the San Ignacio Lagoon habitat. It’s the same year that the United Nations had voted for a resolution calling for the end of worldwide whaling. And 1972 was when the U.S. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act which listed the gray whale.
Pachico’s family continues to offer encounters with gray whales. They might be our competitors in some ways but we are proud to work with them and on some of our daily whale encounters from our glamping and luxury camps, you might well find yourself on one of Pachico’s pangas with one of his family as the Captain.
Make sure you come and see us this whale season.
Baja Expeditions is Baja’s pioneering eco-expedition company of almost 50 years. 2021 will be the company’s 29th season at San Ignacio Lagoon.
Author Mike Lever is company President. He and his team have breathed new life, energy, capital and previously unheard levels of luxury into Baja Expeditions.