This bonus story appears only online
A giant gray back breaks the surface, slowly rising like an island being born, and the first crack of the blow skims across the water like a gunshot. A lethargic torpedo heads directly towards me, and when the great head rises at the last second, I am eye to eye with a forty-ton gray whale.
For me, this is another day at the office, surrounded by forty-five-foot wild animals, pushing my twenty-foot boat around, spraying me with their blow as they jockey for position to be petted, and generally behaving like adolescents on spring break.
I am a marine naturalist in San Ignacio lagoon, Baja, Mexico, and this is where descendants of some of the oldest living creatures on Earth gather annually to work their magic.
San Ignacio is one of three isolated lagoons where gray whales come to teach their newborns calves the fine art of being a whale, and these lagoons are the only known places on Earth where wild animals actively seek out human contact on a regular basis, Being among the largest creatures on Earth, it is all the more spectacular.
I have often had adult whales approach with open mouths to have their tongue and baleen rubbed, and I have had my arm in their mouths up to my shoulder. They also like to get underneath to rub against the hull and will sometimes pick me up, almost completely out of the water. Sometimes they roll upside down to put the boat on their belly for a rub. None of these behaviors has ever been hostile, and I have never felt in danger or even slightly threatened. They are friendly, curious, and docile. Lacking arms or hands, I believe, they simply enjoy the sensation of touch, especially being petted, because they often respond to stroking by pushing against one’s hand.
For those offended by this interaction with wild animals, I will add that everyone in the lagoon scrupulously follows the regulations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and never approaches within 100 yards. We always allow the whale to approach us, and they control the situation. They come to us because they want to.
Eschrichtius robustus, commonly known as the Pacific gray whale, is one of the most enigmatic of the eight-some whale species we share our planet with, and one that has, since before recorded history, made an annual migration of up to 14,000 miles from the Chukchi and Bering seas north of Alaska to the waters of southern Baja. These are called the eastern stock.