by Dick Russell
Perhaps 100 yards off our bow, a massive gray mound rises to the surface. Francisco Mayoral, the wizened captain of our small motorized panga, cuts back on the throttle and begins a gradual approach. A fan-shaped geyser of seawater erupts ahead and subsides with a whoosh. As the whale dives, arching its heart-shaped flukes, a sparkling waterfall beckons us forward.
Francisco leans over the side and starts rapping his knuckles in a rhythmic pattern against the boat’s metal hull. Known as the guardian of San Ignacio Lagoon, at 65 he has been “calling” the Eastern Pacific gray whales for more than a quarter century. He’d been fishing alone when a group surrounded his skiff and, overcoming his fear, Francisco finally reached out a hand. “It was like breaking through some kind of invisible wall,” he recalled, as he became the first human being known to have touched a whale.
That moment marked the beginning of what’s become known as “the friendly gray whale phenomenon” – approaches made to boatloads of visitors at three remote birthing lagoons along Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. Here, a little over a century ago, the grays’ ancestors fell victim by the thousands to whalers’ harpoons. Here, less than a decade ago, pressure from environmental groups staved off another threat – what would have been the world’s largest industrial salt factory.