Whales of Baja's San Ignacio Lagoon

In the region of the grey

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.

“Beautiful,” he said, glancing at the island. “Reminded me of Whistler’s Nocturnes.” Later, in the light of the galley, he looked at the painting and gave a little laugh of surprise.“Not bad,” he said. Each day of the trip he would paint one or two scenes, a kind of pictorial diary.

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Gradually, the sun revealed the dusty reds and greens of the most western of the San Benito Islands. Mountains there are an extension of a range that runs through the great horn at the middle of Baja called by some “Nixon’s Nose,” which in turn is part of our coastal range in Southern California. The island is a rough, arid place that supports cholla cactus, a few mice, and whiptail lizards. But sea lions and elephant seals have adopted the island for their rookeries, bringing a squealing, grunting, bellowing life to the shoreline.

Ready for the day’s excursion, we ate quickly, boarded the rubber skiffs, and were ferried to the little cobbled beach of a seasonal fish camp, silent in the off-season. Walking up through the tiny village, we skirted several bull elephant seals lying among the boats and huts. The bulls were as long as VW buses, 3000 to 5000 pounds each. They lay so still, one woman almost walked into one.

They looked like tan boulders, until one lifted its head and snorted through the bulbous nose that hung into its mouth. Even knowing about their long canine teeth and their ability to cover 15 feet faster than me, it was hard to consider them dangerous. They looked too comical — big slugs, bratwurst with luminous eyes. But their chests were moonscapes of scars from old battles over territory. Margie Stinson warned the group to give the seals a wide clearance.

Whale bones at the lagoon

We hiked through the fish camp, crunching shells, bones, and fish heads, then over a narrow neck of the island and down to the windward wide. Here, every beach and rock and flat place had its crowd of elephant seals, ashore for their annual mating and birthing. The dominant bulls like to haul up on the beaches where the cows have collected; they’ll stake out a territory that includes the females. If another bull moves into the harem or tries a quick fling with one of the females on the fringes, the dominant male rears back and resonates a honk through its big sack of a nose. If the “clap threat” doesn’t work, the two bulls end up face-to-face, chests out, lunging, trying to seize and shake the other with their strong teeth. The top bulls are so ferocious, only four percent of the males fertilize most of the cows.

While hiking the perimeter of the island, every so often we saw a bull pounce on a female, pin her for a few minutes while he copulated, with her screaming the whole time. Finished with the rape, he would move away, a giant bag of blubber. And if an infant seal or two happened to be in his way, too bad, they were simply crushed.

One woman snapped picture after picture, so fascinated she didn’t realize she was standing on a baby seal carcass. The pup had been flattened, looking like a brown doormat, except for the gaping mouth at one end.

Then on a tiny beach, Margie Stinson gazed at several seals. “Imagine them spiraling down into the depths,” she said, her face open for a moment, innocent with wonder.

Indeed, elephant seals are a wonder. On land, they move awkwardly and lie around among their dead, bickering and urinating on themselves. When they hit the water, they are transformed into streamlined animals of grace, diving machines. They can descend at the speed of an express elevator to 4500 feet and rise equally fast. They recover for three minutes, then dive again, over and over, 24 hours a day. No other marine mammals can dive so well. Sperm whales hunt at the same crushing depths, but they require much more recovery time at the surface.

Elephant seals have evolved a way of diving that uses less energy than resting on the surface, a spiraling descent, corkscrewing through the water. Stinson figures they sleep while diving. Imagine dropping into the black depths of the ocean in a dream.

Bull elephant seal

On the walk around the island, Stinson and Crystal Bingham counted seals and scribbled in little notebooks. Once, while conducting a seal census here, Stinson saw a killer whale rush the beach with enough speed to drive itself onto the cobbles and snatch a bull elephant seal in its great teeth. Then it wriggled back into the water and tossed the 5000-pound seal into the air, catching it and tearing it open.

Killer whales aren’t simply the cute tricksters of SeaWorld. They are predators, the biggest, the fastest, the most intelligent. Gray whales have been seen rolling belly-up when approached by killer whales, lying motionless, stunned by fear. Then the killers forced their heads into the mouths of those grays and ate the tongues. They seem to prefer the lips and tongues of big whales but have been known to pull the skin off gray whales just to get at the blubber underneath, leaving the carcasses like peeled grapes.

But not all gray whales succumb to killer whale attacks. Later, in the lagoon, we saw whales with pieces of their tail flukes bitten off or with scars on their backs that were the tracks of killer whale teeth. In the 1800s, whalers told of seeing gray whales clustered for protection, all facing out like the spokes of a wheel, like musk oxen against wolves.

This defensive behavior would seem a natural response, considering the genealogy of whales. Their closest relatives are ungulates, the hoofed animals such as cattle, deer, camels, bison, even pigs. The common ancestor, large mammals called mesonychids, worked the shores of estuaries and lagoons 60 million years ago. Whatever forced them from the land, the creatures adapted, bodies changing from a walking, trotting design into swimming shapes, limbs shortening and spreading into flippers, nostrils moving to the top of the head as if the whole face had been yanked back.

Then, some 30 million years ago, those first whales began to diverge, branching into today’s toothed and baleen whales around the time India collided with the Asian continent, erasing part of an ocean where whales once swam, driving the sea bed into the sky. It wouldn’t be crazy to find fossilized whale vertebrae in the rock five and a half miles up, at the summit of Mount Everest.

We continued on around the island, a sunny and blustery hike with the sea crashing white against the shore. We saw osprey nests, dozens of them; and at the far end of the island, waves hammered a rusting shipwreck directly in front of a lighthouse. By midafternoon we were back aboard the Queen, heading south again.

Mostly the people on board were jubilant. They had seen wildlife with all its howling, smelly, unihibited vigor. And we hadn’t even gotten to the whales yet. One more good meal in the galley, a night’s sleep, and we would be in the lagoon. Even the grumbling about the tight bunks took a cheerful tone.

“I got up an hour early this morning because that bunk is so uncomfortable. And climbing down, I put my foot in the sink.”

“Thought it would kill me, getting out of that top bunk. You just lunge and pray.”

The Queen is a sturdy boat, designed for function. She is no cruise liner. Margie Stinson calls it “comfortable camping,” but I never ate so well on any camping trip — lobster, steak, rock bass, salads, and much more. By the end of the trip I took to brushing my teeth quickly after dinner as a way of avoiding any more desserts.

The next morning, at dawn, we could see waves breaking at the entrance to San Ignacio Lagoon. When we arrived half an hour later, the tide was high and incoming, perfect for entering the lagoon. Still, the entrance always demands attention, with a shifting channel and shoals everywhere. Dozens of gray whales escorted us in. At one point the captain had to slow the boat to let whales cross the bow. On all sides, spouts blasted into the early light. Broad backs rolled out of the water, reflecting the sun. Stinson observed, “They’re thicker than the fleas on my dog’s back.”

The whales moved at a languid pace, as if coasting on the inflowing current. No hurry now, after their 6000-mile journey from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. The wind can rip through here, and the tidal surge is powerful, but compared to the Arctic this is a warm and calm place. San Diego Bay was another sheltered breeding place for gray whales; but by the 1880s, whalers had killed off the wintering herds there.

We anchored several miles inside the lagoon. The big diesels stopped. Dunes and desert mesas surround the fecund eaters. Gray whales aren’t the only ones to use the lagoon as a nursery. A variety of marine life comes here to spawn. Still, gray whales are the most visible.

A quarter mile from the boat, a whale breached. First the head burst from the lagoon, and it kept rising. Still more of the long tube of its body appeared, shedding a great cascade of water. Finally it belly-flopped with a tremendous splash. I wondered at the power needed to launch 50 tons of freight and about why they do it. Scientists don’t know if whales breach as a form of chest-thumping or to communicate or simply to shake off lice. I got the impression of fun — kids in the neighborhood pool — which may not be far from the truth. Young whales are curious and playful. But even for the adults, this must be a place of goodness and celebration. After a long season of solitary work on the Arctic sea floor, after the hazards of the journey, San Ignacio Lagoon is the whale equivalent of a resort. It’s a warm, leisurely time, a chance to meet willing members of the opposite sex, a time to give birth.

The lagoons of Baja are part of the reason gray whales have come back so well from the brink of extinction. Each year the remaining whales knew where to find each other, and they were able to breed. However, the lagoons were also partly responsible for the tremendous slaughter. Every year the whalers knew where to find grays in concentrated numbers. It’s interesting that the man who first killed whales in these lagoons didn’t become a whaler by choice, and he never came to terms with the killing. But Charles Scammon, in his 11 years as a whaling captain, harvested a staggering crop.

Before the first half of the 19th Century, Yankee whalers didn’t bother much with gray whales. Sperm and right whales yielded more oil. But ships might stay out for five years hunting those deep-ocean animals. In contrast, a quick trip to the crowded lagoons of Baja, and a whaling ship could fill its barrels in a single season. It was no turkey shoot, though. A harpooned gray whale would retaliate, crushing boats to splinters. Cornered in their lagoons, they were ferocious, more destructive than maddened sperm whales. Plenty of whalers ended up in sandy graves. One sailor described gray whales like this: “I’ve a strong notion they’re a cross between a sea serpent and an alligator.”

In spite of the risks to the “harpooneersmen,” within a decade of lagoon whaling, gray whales had been nearly wiped out. Scammon wondered “whether this mammal will be numbered among the extinct species of the Pacific.” They did regroup in time to be nearly wiped out again in this century. The slaughter was so thorough during the ’30s the U.S. government stepped in with a law to protect the species. By 1947 gray whales were protected worldwide.

Margie Stinson thinks it is possible that some whales still have memories of the great killing. With 60-year life spans, a few of today’s gray whales could have been there. A testament to their intelligence is that they have learned: men in small boats are no longer the enemy. Stinson was in the lagoon in 1976 when grays first started approaching the boats in a friendly way, as if curious. Any contact, though, is always on the whale’s terms. In 1983 people in a skiff went whale-watching in Scammon’s Lagoon, another whale sanctuary north of San Ignacio. They ran between a calf and its mother. The mother overturned the boat, killing two people. Gray whales are wondrous. They are also wild animals in a violent environment.

Now, with the Pacific Queen sitting in the lively soup of the lagoon, the passengers were anxious to get up close. Maybe touch one. With only three rubber skiffs, the crowd had to split up. Half the group would have the morning whale-watching session, while the rest of us went ashore for a nature walk. The crew flipped the rubber Avons over the side, lowered and attached the outboard engines, then ferried us to Sand Island.

The island, a stretch of dunes and verbena, blocks part of the mouth of the lagoon. Shells, sand dollars, and drifted mangrove wood littered its sand flats. An older woman picked up a weathered murex shell. “Nice,” she said. “Some things can be beautiful, even in deterioration.”

The beach shimmered in the white sunlight, and around on the ocean side, waves rolled in, smooth and green until they crashed. After a mile’s walk, we came upon a dead whale. Judging from the smell, it had washed up several days earlier, but the skin was still too tough for the gulls to peck through. The whale would have to rot some more before the feast could begin. We paced it off. Thirty-nine feet long. At a ton a foot, it was a massive piece of meat. Its mouth hung open and the baleen was gone, possibly eaten by coyotes. Normally, plates of baleen hang from the upper jaws of gray whales. It is horn-like stuff, fringed like the teeth of a comb and used to strain crustaceans and small schooling fish from great gulps of sea water.

As the group spread out, Goldman and Margie Stinson fell in step together. Like Goldman, Stinson is 39 and knew what she liked at an early age. She spent a quiet childhood in Vista “fascinated by growing things,” always hungry for nature. When she first traveled to San Ignacio Lagoon in 1969, she said, “It was like a bird to water.” She would go for six months at a crack, watching the ancient rhythms of whales, living in a tent or with itinerant fishermen, themselves living in a different time world on the edge of the desert. Here, short time is measured by migration patterns of animals and long time by benches on the high mesas that were beaches during the last ice age. Every day, the Santa Clara Mountains floated on the far mirage, as they always have, and the only sounds were of sand being shifted by the wind. Grad- ually, the sun and tides and quiet stamp a different pattern on a person. It shows in the way Stinson pauses now and then and seems light years away. After she went into partnership with the

Pacific Queen in 1971, Stinson still spent time at the lagoon, long summers of studying sea turtles. After all that solitude, return- ing to the high-watt glare of the border must have been mind-bending.

Back on board the Queen after the hike, our group wolfed a quick lunch and climbed down into the rubber Avons. Our skiff was piloted by Scot Leisner. Listening to Leisner is like listening to a disc jockey, but he entertains with his monologues.

For a while we didn’t see any whales closer than a mile away. When we cruised closer, they would appear back where we had been “spyhopping,” stand- ing on their tails, heads out of the water, looking around.

“Seems like they deliberately moved away from us,” one in the group said. “Oh, yeah,” Leisner replied.

“They’re very perceptive critters. They know we’re here.”

Meanwhile, we drifted deeper into the lagoon until the Queen looked tiny, back near the entrance. When Leisner saw whales in the distance, he didn’t run up on them but kept the skiff at a slow, steady speed, making us available if a whale decided to look at us. “They’re gentle animals,” Leisner said, “but you don’t want to push your case with a critter that big.”

The wind kept the water choppy and green, driving spray into the boat. I appreciated my rain gear. Several times, dolphins surfaced in front of the Avon, as if to ride the bow wake. But we were too slow for them. Then a group of whales passed close enough for us to see their barnacles and lice the size of bottle caps around their blowholes.

They moved at a placid pace, placid in the way of big rivers, powerful and momentous. They surfaced to blow, and the chop broke against their backs. Then they slid under with- out a splash and were gone.

We all wanted to see them again, of course, pointing each time we saw anything out on the water. Leisner had to explain his drifting method. “We don’t try to cut off the whales. If they look like they got an appointment, fuck ’em. They got an appointment.” He paused to light a cigarette, eyes scanning the water. “Sometimes you see the bulls, they look like they got some place to go. Well, they’re looking for a girlfriend, and we stay out of their way.”

A short time later, Leisner spotted movement, a tangle of flippers and tails and dark bodies. “Those guys are getting spunky over there.” He guided the Avon in until we clearly saw a courting and mating dance, four bulls concentrating on a single cow. The dance was part ballet, part Highland fling — rubbing, rolling over, holding each other with their flippers. No hurry, no competition. All the males will mate with the same female. t was slow, lazy loving on a warm afternoon.

We sat in the little boat on the edge of that whale drama, riveted by such huge movement going on with so much grace. The males don’t compete; bull gray whales have no fierce battles for supremacy. They actually help each other by holding the female in position. Earlier, Crystal Bingham had told me, “Most terrestrial males will fight,” because survival of the species creates a drive to “have as many of my genes left behind as possible.” With gray whales, she said, “It is thought that the competition is at the level of the sperm,” Spermatozoa-level competition seems an elegant solution.

Once pregnant, a female gray whale carries the new life in her for the whole cycle of migration, through the long swim to the Arctic, the summer of feeding offshore from Siberian river deltas, then returning to the lagoon when the northern ice forms and the angle of sunlight tells her to head south. In the shallow back- waters of the lagoon, she’ll deliver a 2000-pound calf, its flukes folded like the wings of a new butterfly. While nursing the calf and preparing it for the open ocean, she will not mate. So each year, half the cows in the lagoons are unavailable to the bulls.

One by one, members of the mating group dropped away until one male with the female remained. Finally, the sun sank in the western sky, time to head back to the Queen. A scattering of passengers gathered on the forward deck with wine, talking about whales and whether sunsets produce green flashes or not. After dinner, I walked out on deck again. Purple bands still lingered from the sun- set. Whale spouts flowered all across the lagoon, and when I could no longer see them, I heard the deep exhales in the dark. The moment struck me as one of those pictures of human life on the planet: a brief visit, a fuel-burning flash of activity on the surface of bigger movement, our minds half-aware of older rhythms where centuries tick off like seconds.

The next morning at dawn, the skiffs ferried birdwatchers into the man- grove channels. The saltwater-loving plants thrive on the fringes of the lagoon, a low jungle of marsh grass and mangrove bushes standing on stilt-like roots. The little boats skimmed over flat water, into a maze of tidal channels, then stopped. The quiet closed in. There were egrets and various kinds of herons, elegant on their long legs. There were godwits, willets, and curlews, all probing the mudflats like nervous oil drillers. And the lagoon is far enough south to be visited by those tropical pirates, the sleek, black beauties called frigate birds.

Frigates are a marvel of aeronautical design. The bones in their eight-foot wings weigh a mere two and a half ounces. They are rascals. They are soaring masters. Once, in Mazatlán, I saw a frigate glide down from several thousand feet, steal a piece of fish from the sea wall, and rise again, all without flapping its wings.

Where the mangrove thinned out and the lagoon finally yielded to desert, we found a channel of quicksand. I could stand on it for a short time. It had the texture of firm pudding and took some jiggling with a foot to become soupy. I wouldn’t want to hike out across it, but as Leisner said, “There’s Hollywood quicksand and there’s real quicksand.”

When the sun cleared the eastern range, we headed back to the Queen and more talk of whales. Everyone wanted to meet a “friendly,” the ones that come right up to the skiff, roll an eye out of the water to look at the humans, then wait to be petted. With breakfast out of the way, I climbed into a skiff piloted by John Black. Where Leisner is aggressive with his goodwill, Black hangs back, smiles a lot, and quietly notices things. Driving our small group out onto the lagoon, he said, “The first time I had a friendly, I was really nervous.” After a few years of working in the lagoon, he is more comfortable with whales, though he doesn’t take them for granted. Once a whale rose beneath his skiff, lifting it out of the water. Another time he shut off his engine because a calf wanted to chew on the propeller. And, “I’ve had nine of ’em take turns pushing the skiff.”

The Avon glided on the smooth water, until we met a trio of mating whales. They plunged and rolled a short time, then disappeared. We sat in the sun, nothing around us but distance. Suddenly two whales exploded from the lagoon. Clasped in each other’s flippers, they bore down on us. At the last instant, they slid under the skiff, a wall of mottled skin, nicks and scars, barnacles and lice. So close we might have touched them. Easily.

After a stunned moment, everyone shouted and laughed their surprise, their relief. They went on chirping and chattering as the fright bled away. The whales came on so fast and close, with such volume, it seemed as if the boat should have bucked and rolled. But the boat sat rock steady, their passage was that graceful — not a drop of water out of place.

We saw more mating whales, some males rolling so their pink penises flopped over in the sunlight. Standing out of the water, six feet long, they were impossible to ignore. Everyone laughed and made jokes to hide the embarrassment. One woman, a retired schoolteacher from the Midwest, smiled and showed the tolerance that comes from years of counseling teenage boys.

Back on the Queen for lunch, the crowd talked in loud voices about the mating whales they’d seen. I sat next to an old guy named Willie, who, in his 80 years, has visited most parts of the world. He likes to go back to a place and see “how they’ve screwed it up.”

“Seen any that have gotten better?” I asked.

Willie shook his old head. “Not really.”

If Stinson can be said to have a mission, it would be to prevent this lagoon from being “screwed up.”

The captain said that when Stinson first started working with the Pacific Queen, she wasn’t concerned with profit. She wanted to take people down and teach them, share the pristine lagoon.

"I’ll be honest,” the captain said. “At first, I was looking for something to do during the off season...you know, the money.” But he was ripe for conversion. In 50 years of running sport-fishing boats, he’d seen “tremendous changes in marine life.” Through his association with Stinson, he got caught up in the ecology of the ocean, saw truth in the need for preservation. “It’s been broadening.”

On that afternoon’s shore party, Margie Stinson talked about sharks and sea turtles, the geol- ogy of the lagoon, the history of the Serra Indians. She told how all shellfish are either clams or snails. The snails have a single shell and a muscular foot, like abalones. Clams are the bivalves, animals with two shells, like oysters and scallops. Infinite variety in two basic designs.

As a biologist, Stinson finds everything interesting, including her groups. She has guided all manner of people to the lagoon: dunces and geniuses, young and old. Mostly, she said, the people who take the trips are “spunky” women who drag their retired husbands along. But on this trip, most of the husbands were enthusiastic. One old north-woodsman heard Stinson call a certain tidal plant edible, so he picked a sprig. “Might as well try it.” He munched a bit and grinned. “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t what you’d call good.”

On our third day at San Ignacio, the friendlies showed up. As we watched breaching whales, diving whales showing their flukes, a single whale came at us from the side. It passed beneath us, reflecting so much light it looked white. We could have been cruising over a shallow reef. It circled back, leisurely approaching the stern. Of the five people aboard, not one took a full breath. The whale floated to the surface, blew and hung there, its snout a foot away. We could see the clusters of barnacles, each one like a silver dollar-sized volcano The patches of orange lice showed clearly.

It continued to hang there, the far end of its body disappearing into green underwater distance. A woman reached toward the whale. It eased forward and let itself be pet- ted for a moment before backing off a bit. It seemed to be studying us. Or feeling our presence. Its own presence was awesome. It blew a final time, sank, and then was gone.

Back on the Queen, I found out the other skiffs had been visited by friendlies too. What a bub- bling word stew there was.

“I felt it was a being.”

“She came up beneath us, rolled over on her back, and nudged us. It was no accident.”

“It felt like a gym shoe with a bit more give to it.”

“You ever touched a dolphin? Sort of a pneumatic feel to them.”

“I’m not gonna wash this hand for a long time.”

And Leisner teased a guy from Texas for jumping when “this black-and- white apparition rose out of the depths.” The Texan answered, “My momma always taught me to draw back if the animal is 400 times bigger than me.”

Suddenly, too soon, it was time to leave. The Pacific Queen cleared the lagoon channel with the sun setting and whale spouts all around. In a month or so, the whales will leave too, dropping their gregarious behavior and becoming solitary feeders in the Arctic, back to making a living.

We visited several islands on the return trip, rugged upheavals of rock in the bright sea, decompression stops on the way back to the 20th Century. I never felt the familiar desert spell on this journey, that slowing down until the thousand petty concerns fade and the world spins true again. Traveling by schedule with 38 people, it might not ever happen. But life got simple enough, clean enough, that I noticed the little snap of reentry when we pulled into Ensenada our last afternoon. On a walk with Goldman around the harbor basin, we smelled the tidal muck, a mix of petroleum, rotting fish, and rancid grease. Goldman said, “You know, where we’ve been is nature at its best. Well, this is nature with halitosis.”

I laughed but once again thought of human life on the planet, a tiny explosion on the surface of deep time. On this trip I’d seen how life springs back if left alone. And it seemed that whether or not people are around to know it, the halitosis is only temporary in the big picture.

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