(Baja) California dreaming, with whales and whale sharks

When we are children, we think about certain things with only with the strange combination of vagueness and vividness that characterises dreams – in colours and shapes that seem literally beyond reach. For me, this was the case with the great whales. At once totally otherworldly and eerily familiar, whales are laden with symbolism in many cultures, and for good reason. I didn’t know that in a sophisticated way as a child, but I knew that they captured my imagination in the same way as dinosaurs did. Occasionally, then, a childhood dream collides with reality… And this is what happened this past month in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

A little background feels necessary to explain how important this trip has been. For the past month, I have been travelling around. My first trip out of Europe since 2019, it felt disproportionately momentous, because not only has the world changed in those three years, but I have changed a lot, too. The first half of 2019 was one of the most memorable periods of my life. I went to Ethiopia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Australia; as the planet spun itself into its northern hemisphere summer, I returned to Europe and learned how to sail on a tall wooden ship, went to an idyllic Swedish island, visited my second home in Paris, and worked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The second half – or really, from October onwards – was pretty awful. That was the beginning of a period of diminished hope, disappointment, and self-doubt, as the euphoria I’d felt upon travelling so much collapsed into disappointment when the next decision I made for my future turned out to fall short of what I’d hoped for. I had expected my Research Master degree at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to be an experience of learning and crystallisation similar to my other higher educational experiences. I had hoped to meet a collective of like-minded students, settle into a fun and intellectually stimulating social life, and make a few friends that might last beyond the academic year.

Instead, after a brief period of heightened happiness about being in Amsterdam – which is unquestionably a wonderful city, with an amazing cycling culture, good food, and tonnes of museums, parks, and bookshops – I realised I was falling into loneliness. I was the only person following the particular path on my course, the university was located in the soulless business district far from the city centre, and all the Dutch students seemed to have their own lives set up already. While people were friendly, and the professors excellent, no one seemed to want to form a “community” – and there wasn’t the university infrastructure to create one, with no bar or hangout space. The classes were challenging in the best way, but after they were over, everyone seemed to disperse. To make matters worse, as winter came around, it was rainy and blustery, the sky an uninspiring grey most days.

I did make one amazing friend, who became my research partner last summer, and I had some experiences which were memorable in a way that will stay ingrained forever in my emotional memory. The tide might have just begun to turn in February, when I joined the university rooftop gardening club, started a book club, and was making preparations to study in Norway for a semester, something I was really excited about. But in truth, I was miserable. I had gone from being independent and fulfilled, with a life full of colour and movement, to being stationary in a city I couldn’t help feeling was rejecting me. For the first time in many years, I felt like I might have made a mistake.

Then, of course, came 2020 – and the start of an unprecedented period of isolation and terror on a global scale. My fears seemed to have expanded – suddenly everyone was suffering, not that that made my own suffering better. The future foreclosed, the horizon shut down. I didn’t know where to turn. The world changed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Moving to Lisbon was a beautiful interlude, and life has been much better since then. Still, progress has been tentative, with plenty of backsliding. My mental state seems to correlate perfectly with the level of Covid-related restrictions in society, and although Lisbon had one long, terrible lockdown during winter 2021 (during which I learned to surf), it has generally been a good place to be during the pandemic. I’m happy there, and life gets better all the time.

So the decision to come to Mexico – my first trip out of the continent for three years; my first trip west in seven – felt like a really big deal: an expression of something representing normality, as the pandemic seemed to be waning in many countries. Baja California is the dry peninsula in the west of the country, a land extension of American California, which of course I know well. It’s known as a hotspot for marine megafauna, and it was there that I met the whales.

Getting ready for our expedition onto the wind-whipped sea

Whales, more whales – and whale-like fish

As may be obvious from my book choices, I’ve long had something of a whale obsession – from the appalling history of how humans took them to the brink of extinction (here’s something I wrote during my MA degree last year) to the irresistible mascot of clothing company Two Thirds, which as a bonus manufactures all its garments in Portugal. Sharks, too, have featured on this blog, but it is whales that I continually return to in my heart as much as my head. I’m far from the only person to have noted their uncanny resemblance to other warm-blooded creatures – even if whales were once thought to be fish – and seeing grey whales with their calves, you can’t help but feel a kind of mammalian affinity, seeing their spines flex in a smooth movement as a dog’s or a lion’s would, and watching the mothers guide their babies to the surface to breathe.

Pretty thrilling

Having never seen a whale before, except from a distance during a sperm whale watching tour in Kaikoura, New Zealand, the first thing that strikes you is their sheer size. In our initial glimpse of the grey whales in San Ignacio bay, they were engaging in something called spy hopping, sticking their heads out of the water with their bodies vertically below in order to get a better look at what’s on the horizon. In this pose, they bring to mind a boat upended and about to sink below the surface. Like probably most people who see whales in person, the first thing that comes to mind is: how could someone want to kill these creatures?

Some grey whales are considered “friendly whales”, meaning that they come closer to the boat to allow themselves to be scratched and petted by tourists. Unfortunately both times we were able to see them (the other time being further south, in a place called Adolfo Lopez Mateos), the wind was high and the waters choppy, so the whales were less keen to hang around. However the babies especially showed continuous curiosity, poking their noses out and swimming right next to the boat. At one stage, we drifted next to a striking white mother who must have been at least 12m long, and her little darker-coloured calf, who had to be scolded because he or she kept coming back to see us!

The friendly baby whale
Dream come true!

I landed on ‘friendly submarines’ as the best description of the grey whales. You can see the similarity in the video, in the way the mother surfaces from the murky green depths. When viewed so close, the whales’ bulk is astonishing. Amidst all the destruction humans inflict on animals, and with at least six mega extinction events in planetary history, it’s almost unbelievable that we are living at the same time as the largest animals not only alive on the planet today, but ever.

That said, snorkelling with whale sharks – which I did in La Paz, just 15 minutes’ boat ride from the town’s central harbour – is without a doubt, a lifetime highlight. Unfortunately no photos from that one, but even if I’d had an underwater camera, there wouldn’t have been much time for me to get myself together before jumping into the dark sea.

We were led out on a tiny boat by an Ahab-style, madcap capitan who looked and sounded as though he led an amphibious life. With wild hair, tanned skin and a booming voice, he whipped us up into a state of something close to alarm, ending each sentence in a higher pitch than the one before. He never wavered in his excitement about seeing the whale sharks, and overall I was impressed with how much he loved them.

They were amazingly easy to find, cruising through the shallow water quite close to the shore. When we spotted one, he shrieked and the boat driver swung the vessel around so that we were ready to get in right next to the shark as it swam unknowingly towards us. Then, when it was three metres away, he yelled at us to get in – “tranquilo, tranquilo!!” – and as a group with varied swimming abilities, we tumbled awkwardly into the water one by one, with one guy even ending up on top of the whale shark as its fin sliced through the water.

Not all of us got to see the shark that much, but I was lucky. The captain let us jump in with them four times, and they swim quite fast – you have to be pretty quick to keep up. I’ll never forget when I first jumped in, heart beating wildly, and was greeted by the friendly face – there’s no other way of putting it – of my first whale shark. They really do look like they are smiling, and their colouring is so pretty (whale sharks are called “marokintana”, meaning “many stars”, in the Madagascan language of Malagasy).

While I never did get to swim with a basking shark last summer, and I shan’t forget that trip, after this experience, I think I’d take sunny Baja California, warm seas, and smiling whale sharks any day.

Reading list 📚

  • The Whales Know: A Journey Through Mexican California by Pino Cacucci (2014)
  • Soundings: Journeys in the Company of Whales by Doreen Cunningham (2022)

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