Bahia Almejas and Isla Magdalena, 1/21/2023, National Geographic Sea Bird
National Geographic Sea Bird
This morning, we sailed into Bahia Almejas on calm seas and with high hopes of spotting gray whales. On the way, we took a good look at the frigatebirds, cormorants, pelicans, and sandpipers that rested on the sandbank. After nearly three hours of fabulous whale encounters that included many, many spyhops, we returned to the ship for lunch and a whale presentation.
The afternoon was spent hiking on Isla Magdalena. We looked for plants and wildlife and enjoyed a refreshing dip in the ocean.
Usually boisterous with the chatter of many languages, the guests
and crew of our whale-watching boats were left speechless by what we
encountered. Panga pidgin, it seems, is largely just figuring out ways to tell
others to be still and enjoy a moment in nature. Like when the exhalation of a
mother gray whale, flanked ever so closely by her precious calf, evokes
memories of our own mothers shushing us. When we lock eyes with a creature
foreign yet familiar and are left to ponder what she may be pondering.
A Caspian tern, appearing lighter than air, approaches our panga from the south, dancing like a butterfly on slender wings. From either side of its bright orange dagger-like beak dangles a slim silver fish, which catches the eye of a Bonaparte’s gull flying above. Its black head and beak suggest a serious attitude befitting a bird sharing a surname with a certain French emperor. With conquest on its mind this sunny morning, the gull makes a beeline toward the successful hunter and its catch. They meet––hunter and challenger––above our boat, and a battle ensues. The tern banks right, the gull follows. Left, up, right. The gull stays close, but in this dogfight, the deft tern keeps its prize firm in its clutches, and just out of reach of the pursuer’s hopeful beak. As the two wrangle a much larger contestant enters the ring. While it is not uncommon for poaching gulls to purloin prey, this newcomer––a female magnificent frigatebird––is known for making its living through such pescatarian thievery. Recognizing it is outgunned, the gull pulls out of the fray. The new contest will not last long. In one swift lunge with its long decurved beak, the frigatebird unnerves the tern, who barely feigns a parry before releasing the fish back into the brine. Both birds circle, spy the sea beneath, and fly their separate ways. Fortunately for all three––tern, gull, and frigatebird––there are plenty more fish in Magdalena Bay.
Today I feel ten years old, or maybe thirteen, or seven. The enthusiasm, curiosity, kindness, and ingenuousness of the twenty-seven children we have on board makes me go back to the days of innocence, when the world was endless, full of fresh perfumes and sweet adventures. And here in Baja California, the world is still full of such things. Mexico has protected its whales since 1937, so this is a place to feel optimistic and hopeful for the future of the planet. These children are its future! They are having the experience of a lifetime: getting close to the gray whales, being bathed in their breath and splashed by their flukes. The children ask questions, they learn, and they formulate hypotheses. There are so many things we ignore about these whales. Maybe the children will find answers to the “whys” of the whales’ migration, of their behavior. Even better, we hope the children will make sure that the whales are well respected and preserved, including the sea where they live and the air they inhale. We celebrated the first whales of the voyage with traditional piñatas, and we explored the mangroves by kayaks, paddleboards, and Zodiac rides. We walked into a town on the peninsula that seems lost in time. Every activity is a discovery, each moment is an adventure. Puerto Lopez Mateos welcomed us with the Desert Flowers. These dancers are the mothers, sisters, and even grandmothers of our pangueros, the boat drivers who take us to look for whales. They have been studying folkloric dance for three years and perform at different events. They manage their own enterprise now; they are empowered women who take pride in sharing their art with visitors while preserving their cultural traditions. The children have learned a great deal in the last couple of days, and I am enjoying a buoyant feeling. It is as if the world is endless again, full of fresh perfumes and sweet adventures.