Gray whale, San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja Mexico
  • Gray whale, San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja Mexico

The Pacific Ocean swung at anchor several miles inside the entrance shoals of San Ignacio Lagoon. I hadn’t expected this place to be so big. Neither had I expected so many whales, such abundance of life surrounded by desert. In any direction were dozens of spouts. The blows had a feathery quality, each one a brief flower. They blossomed from flat water and drifted. The lagoon this time of year is a whale garden in bloom.

Though the spouts looked soft in the distance, by the end of the first day in the lagoon I’d been close enough to whales to see their double blowholes open, to hear the explosive force of the exhale, and to be showered by the mist. The immediate inhale had the resonant sound of enormous tanks being filled.

All that movement out there, all those huge bodies splashing and blowing...that’s what the passengers on this expedition had come to see. We had traveled 450 miles by boat to have a look at leviathans, animals that make a million years seem quick.

But the spectacle has some distance, an intangible quality. I had never traveled so far down Baja California so easily, so comfortably. Without the days of hot driving, the long passage through mirage and cactus fields, it was hard to shake the feeling that somehow, behind the next ridge, lay a city. I still waited for the desert spell to hit me, that sense of a simpler order being restored.

Three nights earlier we had left the dock in San Diego Bay. Piles of duffel bags and camera cases had been stowed. The 30 passengers, mostly middle-aged and older, zipped new jackets against the February chill while finding their bunks and watching the demonstrations of how to work a marine toilet.

I’d been assigned to the forward bunkhouse with the crew, as had San Diego artist Ken Goldman. Narrow bunks lined the bow sleeping area like bookshelves. Half of them were loaded with loaves of bread, crates of bananas, cold cereal, peanuts, cookies, cakes, dried fruit, juice, beef, and much more — the overflow from the main bulk of food stored in the galley and big refrigerators. Amazing how much food 38 people will eat in nine days. Climbing into his tiny bed, Goldman said, “I feel like a mouse in a pantry.”

The Queen left port at midnight and headed south, following the migra-tion route of gray whales. All the next day and the following night, we traveled at a steady 11 knots, thin diesel exhaust wrinkling the air above the twin stacks. Swells rolling out of the north overtook and passed us, and the north wind pushed whitecaps our same way. Moving with the flow of energy, we had a smooth ride, and the passengers began the rituals of getting to know one another. With so many people on an 85-foot boat, it wasn’t hard to eaves- drop. The talk seemed what you’d expect on a biological expedition sponsored by San Diego’s Natural History Museum.

“Last summer I rafted down a river above the Arctic Circle.”

“That a ring-billed gull or a kittiwake?”

These people love the natural world, and they don’t mind getting their feet wet.

Naturalist Margie Stinson was the guiding force behind the trip. Each year during the mating and calving season of gray whales, Stinson leads journeys south to San Ignacio Lagoon. A couple of the trips are for the museum, but most are the business of her company, Biological Adventures, in partnership with the

Pacific Queen.

Stinson is about six feet one, athletic and strong enough to lift onboard engines. In jeans and sweat- shirt, her long hair braided out of the way, she looks like a hardworking woman of the West, a ranch hand, a cowgirl. Strength shows in the set of her jaw, in eyes that don’t turn away. Yet this is offset by a touch of shyness. But this is just one of the contradictions about her. She is a private person in a public job, a scientist with an artist’s eye, who concerns herself with the comfort and lavish feeding of her groups while living the spare life of a renunciative monk. Her home much of the year is a bench behind the wheel- house, where she sleeps in all weather.

Once, the Queen came upon a pod of blue whales, animals bigger than anything that ever lived. When one of the blues defecated, Stinson stuck her hand into the red cloud to collect a sample. Her arm burned for days from the digestive juices, but she is proud of that sample. “As far as I know, nobody else has any. Want to see it?”

That first day out was a time of eating, strolling the deck and simply letting the eyes get used to vastness, the motion of the sea, a shifting of light and a marriage of color, green water turning gray with distance. Whitecaps rushed across the surface, while the bottom, at 90 fathoms, was a pattern of under- water canyons, mountains, and plateaus.

At one point, Stinson, with Captain Eddie McEwen and naturalist Crystal Bingham, gathered the passengers on the forward deck to talk basic rules of safety, water conservation, and ecological good sense. Plastic bags thrown overboard, Stinson said, are the number-one cause of death for sea turtles and porpoises. The animals think the bags are jellyfish, eat them, and suffocate. She once found a dead sea turtle, skewered, in effect, by a large plastic bag, the plastic hanging out its beak and its anus. She went on to say that only seven boats in the world have permits to conduct natural history expeditions into Baja’s lagoons. And they operate under a single condition: “Excellent environmental ethics.”

Whaling ship wreck, San Benito Island

Four in the morning the second day, the rattle of the anchor chain woke me. For a moment, it felt strange to lie in a bed that wasn’t pitching and diving. Out on deck, a cold wind cut through my cloth- ing. The moon shone between patches of cloud. We floated in a cove of a black, jagged Baja Cali- fornia island. We had arrived at the San Benitos, about halfway down the coast of Baja. A shape on the forward deck turned out to be Ken Goldman working on a watercolor, painting intuitively in the dim light. With his flattened nose and wiry build, Goldman could be a welterweight boxer, except his eyes send out a message of friendliness. At 39 he has been painting seriously for more than half his life, one of those rare people with an early vision of his life’s work.

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