Feeling Like They're Among Friends : For Whale Watchers, It's a Near-Perfect Experience

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the warm, salty waters of a shallow lagoon on the western coast of Baja California recently, Vivian Richman's dream came true.

She kissed a whale.

She leaned over the side of a small boat and planted a big kiss on the smooth, rubbery nose of a young Pacific gray whale.

And the strangest part was that the whale seemed to enjoy it too. In fact, it was at least partly the whale's idea.

"He came right up to the boat and his head came straight out of the water and I leaned over and kissed it," said Richman, 55, a retired businesswoman from Malibu who was one of several dozen members of a whale-watching expedition sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.

"It was just so large, but so gentle. It was just incredible."

The scene of this close encounter between vastly disproportionate mammals--at a little over a hundred pounds, Richman is about one-fiftieth the size of the young whale she kissed--was San Ignacio Lagoon, a narrow, 16-mile-long inlet that is virtually teeming with gray whales during the winter and early spring. Situated about 600 miles southeast of Los Angeles on the desert shore of southern Baja California, San Ignacio Lagoon and other lagoons nearby are the mating and birthing grounds of thousands of Pacific gray whales who divide their time between Baja and their feeding grounds near Alaska.

During the first few months of every year, the lagoon is so chock-full of whales that it's almost impossible to look at any particular patch of water for five minutes without seeing one, or three, or a dozen. Sometimes it's just the knuckled dorsal curve of their bodies cutting through the surface; other times they "blow," spewing a flume of vapor out of their breathing holes, or breach (shooting out of the water and falling back with a tremendous splash), or perform a curious movement called "spy-hopping," in which the whale sticks its head vertically out of the water and eyeballs the surroundings.

In recent years, San Ignacio Lagoon has become the ultimate whale watcher's destination, not only because so many whales congregate there, but also because while in the lagoon the whales often display behavior that scientists say is probably unique in all the world: They actually seek out close physical contact with humans.

The young whales in particular swim right up to small boats, pop their heads out of the water, look around with eyes the size of baseballs and then, like dogs wanting to be petted, nuzzle up to the boats and the outstretched hands of the humans aboard. They seem to enjoy the contact; with the mother keeping a watchful eye nearby, some of the young whales will frolic around the boats for half an hour or more. Sometimes the mother will even nudge her offspring toward the boats, as if eager for the young whale to get a look at the strange creatures inside.

"It was obvious the mother was actually steering the calf over," said Santa Monica attorney John Hoaglund, a self-described outdoorsman who termed the excursion "among the most exciting things I've ever done in my life."

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The contact is always the whales' choice. The Mexican government regulates not only the number of boats allowed in the lagoons but the activities of the whale watchers as well. Boats are restricted to the outer third of the lagoon. Chasing or harassing the whales in any way is prohibited, and would be counterproductive to whale watching anyway. As it is, the small whale-watching skiffs, called pangas , take off from shore or from larger boats and simply park themselves in the whales' general area. Then they wait to see if the whales will come to them.

If the weather conditions are right--no wind and flat water--and the whales are in the mood, it's usually only a short wait before a whale and her calf will initiate the contact.

For Richman, Hoaglund and the other members of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium expedition, which sailed to the lagoon aboard the 110-foot fishing boat Royal Polaris out of San Diego, the encounters were awe-inspiring. All of them saw gray whales up close and personal, from only a few feet away. Almost all actually touched some of the whales. And everyone described the experience as being, well, almost mystical.

"I touched a whale! With this hand right here, I touched it!" exclaimed Marydith Piepenbrink, 70, a San Pedro nurse. "I can die happy now. To see them so close is great, but to actually touch one is . . . well, it's hard to explain. It was just a wonderful experience."

"I felt like I was in church," Ewa Pauker of Topanga Canyon said of her whale-touching experience. "It's like nothing I've ever known before."

What the whales got out of it is anybody's guess. In fact, no one knows why the whales in the lagoon behave in the gentle, friendly way they do.

"There are a lot of theories, but nothing certain," said Larry Fukuhara, program director at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and one of the organizers of the whale-watching trip. "There seems to be some connection there, between the whales and the humans, but we don't know what it is."

Hoaglund, the Santa Monica attorney, sensed that connection each time a curious whale would rise up and stare into his boat.

"You could look in the whale's eye and see intelligence," he asserted. "Even the calves demonstrated intelligence."

The behavior of the so-called "friendlies" is all the more astounding when measured against the savage, bloody history of mankind's interaction with the Pacific gray whale.

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The gray whales leave the Arctic waters in the fall and head south along the coast at a swimming speed of 4 to 6 m.p.h., drawing whale-watching charter boats out of harbors such as Marina del Rey as the animals pass near Southern California shores. A few months and about 6,000 miles later, the whales reach the warm shallow lagoons where they are safe from storms and natural predators. Males and females mate; those females will bear their young a year later. Already pregnant females give birth to 15- or 16-foot-long calves that grow rapidly on a diet of mother's milk, which is about 50% fat; the calves drink about 200 gallons of milk a day. By early March, the males leave the lagoons and head back north; by mid-April the mothers and their now-fat calves follow.

For thousands of years, Native Americans along the West Coast hunted gray whales as they passed by on their journeys to and from the Baja lagoons. Since gray whales seldom swim out of sight of land, they were an accessible source of food, if not necessarily an easy one. Weighing as much as 45 tons, they were dangerous prey for aboriginal hunters.

Native Americans, given their limited numbers and means, didn't make much of a dent in the gray whale population. In the mid-1850s, however, a whaling captain named Charles Scammon discovered the largest of the gray whales' birthing lagoons on the Baja coast. Later Scammon would write that in the lagoon, now known as Scammon's Lagoon, the whales were "huddled so thickly that it was difficult for a boat to cross the water without coming into contact with them."

The word of this whale bonanza spread quickly. Soon whaling ships were congregating outside the mouth of the lagoon and sending longboats inside to hunt the whales. Within four years the whales in Scammon's Lagoon had been virtually wiped out, turned into whale oil and other products.

(One highly sought whale part was the baleen plates, the flexible sieves through which whales sift out the small crustaceans on which they feed. Before the invention of plastics, the baleen material was used for women's corsets and other products requiring strong but flexible material.)

Although the whales lost the war, the battles between man and gray whales weren't always completely one-sided. Scammon wrote that "Hardly a day passes but there is upsetting or staving of the boats (by gray whales). . . . Repeated incidents have happened in which men have been instantly killed or received mortal injury."

In fact, despite its friendly reputation now, the gray whale was known to whaling men as the "devil fish" because of its ferocity in attacking when it was injured, or when its young were endangered.

By the end of the 19th Century, Pacific gray whales, which had once numbered about 20,000 animals, were so few in number that it was no longer profitable to hunt them.

Amazingly, the gray whale made a comeback, its numbers increasing steadily until once again the Baja lagoons were full of them. In the 1920s and '30s, there were so many that whalers once again came after them, killing them by the thousands and grinding them up for pet food. For the second time, the gray whale was almost wiped off the face of the earth.

In 1938, however, an international treaty was signed to protect the gray whale, and their numbers have been steadily increasing. Although whale censuses are difficult to do, experts estimate that there are now about 20,000 Pacific gray whales--the same number that existed in pre-commercial hunting times.

Although it was no secret to the local fishermen, who often had " las ballenas " approach their small fishing boats, the friendly behavior of the gray whales while they're inside the Baja lagoons was first noted by scientists in the 1970s. (The friendly behavior does not occur outside the lagoons, where the whales apparently are too busy migrating or feeding to pay attention to people.)

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Some scientists initially speculated that the "friendly whales" of the Baja lagoons were actually just one particular whale, a female named Gigi who had spent a year in captivity at SeaWorld in San Diego before being released into the Pacific, and thus presumably was accustomed to humans.

But as more and more contacts were documented, it became clear that, for reasons of their own, the gray whales of San Ignacio Lagoon and other Baja lagoons sometimes enjoyed sidling up to humans in small boats.

Not always, though. Bill Samaras, a retired Carson High School science teacher and gray whale expert who has traveled to the lagoons every year for the past two decades, notes that, "When there's mating going on, you can't get anywhere close to the whales."

Samaras discovered this at his peril some years ago, when his boat got a little too close to mating whales. The male whale flipped over suddenly and Samaras almost got crushed by a 10-foot-long gray whale penis that slammed down on the boat.

There have been reported incidents of whale-watching boats being knocked over, probably accidentally, by whales in the lagoons. In 1983 in Scammon's Lagoon, a whale-watching boat got between a mother and its calf and wound up getting whacked by a massive whale fluke, or tail; one elderly passenger died of a heart attack, and another was struck and killed by a flying oar.

But those are aberrations--flukes, if you will.

Getting to San Ignacio Lagoon can be expensive, or difficult, or sometimes both. The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (formerly the Cabrillo Marine Museum) has been sponsoring annual boat trips there for 15 years; the cost this year for an eight-day voyage on the Royal Polaris from San Diego with stops at the lagoon and several offshore islands was about $1,800 per person. The trip was booked months in advance.

Trips to the lagoon by land are possible, but rugged; the lagoon is connected to the nearest town, San Ignacio, only by a 35-mile stretch of deeply rutted, washed-out dirt road. At the lagoon, licensed panga drivers and guides take whale watchers on day trips into the lagoon for about $25 per person.

Seldom is anyone disappointed.

"I've never seen a bad year for whale watching here," says Steve Loomis, 50, skipper of the Royal Polaris, which was making its second trip to the lagoon this year. "The whales always seem to cooperate."

"What an exhilarating feeling!" said Bert Bickel, 69, a retired printing plant owner from Sherman Oaks, shortly after his first whale contact. "I've been interested in whales for a long time, but this is just unbelievable."

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