Savoring the Wildlife With the Whales
By Geoff Smith '71
Photo Credits: Laird Hayes ’71, Mike Ladra ’71, Mark Moorstein ’71, Geoff Smith ’71, Alan Usas ’71
Three days before the Covid-19 virus virtually shut down the entire country, 18 intrepid classmates and spouses rolled south on a large bus across the Mexican border into the nearly empty spaces of Baja California on a journey to greet the Gray Whales, where they mate and give birth at the southern point of their annual migration from the Bering Sea. The trip had been planned for over a year, but news of the approaching effects of the Coronavirus and some injuries sidelined nine of the original whaling crew. The rest decided that one of the most sparsely populated parts of the planet with little international contact may be one of the safer places to be while the rest of the world fell apart.
A shot of tequila at lunch in Ensenada buoyed the crew against a second approaching disaster. An atmospheric river of rain began to flow over Baja, one of the driest places on the planet, depositing an almost biblical doubling of the average annual rainfall in the first two days of the trip. A break in the rain allowed people to take a dawn walk on a five mile-long deserted beach in San Quintin, surrounded by crashing waves and heavy, threatening clouds. In the center of the Baja peninsula, further rain breaks allowed several walks out into the desert, to explore rarely green forests of 30 foot-high Cardon cacti interspersed with specimens of a dozen other spine-crowned brethren, including the locally famous Boojum, all indigenous only to Baja. One hike took the group to a small rock cave with a ceiling covered in 2000 year-old petroglyphs.
The 18 whalers spread out in a 40 passenger bus driven by our incredibly skilled driver, Enrique. The warm interior was a beehive of conversations between classmates and spouses, the kind of long and deep conversations that stretched way beyond those restricted by time at a class gathering or reunion. The conversations, fueled by numerous fresh lime margaritas, continued through cocktail hours and hearty dinners. A knowledgeable tour guide provided a running commentary on the flora, fauna and history of the remote peninsula and called our meal orders ahead to colorful waiting restaurants which kept the whalers fortified with tasty fresh Mexican food. Perhaps the greatest find of the tour was the presence onboard of JT Miller ’70 who happens to be the booming-voiced leader of ‘70’s locomotives at reunions. The bus and some restaurants frequently echoed with enthusiastic locomotives to anything and anybody who was currently relevant. The guide and assistant guide, Maria and Miriam, were caught up in the enthusiasm and considered this one of the most fun trips they had ever led.
The first of three outings with the whales was cancelled when low visibility from the rain closed the Scammon’s Lagoon whale observation area, but a drizzly stroll through a large Pacific Flyway bird refuge and a local lobster lunch with a few beers cushioned the disappointment. Then the second whale outing was cancelled when the dirt causeway road leading to San Ignacio Lagoon was ripped apart by a raging torrent of water flooding out of the coastal mountains. The whalers once again rolled with the punch and engaged in another seafood lunch on the outdoor patio of a small restaurant overlooking the square in the small, spring-fed village of San Ignacio, shaded by 100 year-old trees on a 70 degree day.
Maria managed to arrange a double observation whale trip in Scammon’s the next morning and the whalers were on the bus at 5:45 watching the sun rise over the spectacular cacti of central Baja, riding up to Guerrero Negro, hoping not to be shut out of the last whale tour. The crew arrived at Scammon’s Lagoon on a sunny morning, with no wind, a serviceable access road and immediately headed out to see the Gray Whales. The Mexican panga boat drivers know where the whales tend to congregate and have been trained in how to approach them without harassing them. In the double outings, the group saw perhaps 100 whales, some so close to the boats they could be touched. Everyone was dampened by spout spray. The whales seemed happy to have some human company again and at times there were as many as five whales including two babies cruising around and under the two boats, which were about half the length of the 35 ton giants. One large whale with a pure white, eight foot-wide fluke followed us for hours causing the crew to wonder if there was a vengeful amputee stowed away onboard.
It was a relaxing tour back north in the bus filled with excited conversation and more locomotives, but the mood grew more somber as the whalers contemplated returning from a safe cocoon into a world gone mad. News reports and emails from anxious relatives had prepared the group for what was waiting. The final evening included a marvelous sunset, toasted with margaritas, at a seaside hotel. Delaying their return as long as possible, on the last day the crew toured the Guadalupe Valley wine country with two tastings and a five course, locally sourced gourmet lunch before rolling back across the border. Now, while the whalers are all sitting at home doing their part to slow the spread of the virus, all carry some wonderful memories of an amazing adventure with now-close friends to a remote and magical place. And the whalers are proposing JT Miller for an honorary membership in the Class of 71.
Exploring on and enjoying this group adventure were Paul Diebel, John Drummond and Hildy, Laird Hayes, KP Kirkpatrick and Liza, Mike Ladra and Kathy, JT Miller '70, Mark Moorstein, Tom Sinclair and Barbara, Geoff Smith and Julie, Tim Tosta and Nancy Martin, and Alan Usas and Karen.
More photos of the trip can be seen in the Class Photo Gallery.