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Baja: Breathing with Whales

“What’s your favorite memory of me?”

I posed the question to my mom. She was on her deathbed and had been heavily hallucinating throughout the day. We had this one brief window of lucid conversation after the sun had set and family and neighbors had gone home. This was the last question I ever asked her.

“When we went whale watching in Cape Cod. Your smile lit up the entire boat. You were the one that spotted the mama and the baby.” The answer came to her so quickly. I watched her take her last breath about 36 hours later after listening to her death rattle breathing all night.

(A gray whale cow and calf [Eschrichtius robustus])

Nine months later, I was on an adventure to see the newborn gray whales, to learn if they truly did like interacting with humans like the stories and photos suggested. After my last conversation with my mom, this bucket list item couldn’t be put off any longer.

Experiencing the gray whale nursery in the San Ignacio lagoon was at the top of my bucket list since I learned about it five years prior. Photos of humans touching baby whales are all over the internet… how could this be legal or possible? Surely the newborn leviathons were being harassed. I discarded the idea at the time.

Yet five years later, passion and curiosity got the best of me and I arrived at Campo Cortez in Baja Sur through Baja Ecotours. I wasn't in the best headspace. While losing my mom paradoxically catalyzed a phenomenal amount of healing, I could feel my mental health intermittently threaten to slip away. I was having undulating episodes of severe anxiety, forgetting to breathe, forgetting to be present.

(Campo Cortez cabin at sunset)

That's the thing about traveling, though - the body is thrown into a quintessential experience that forces heightened awareness. It forces being present. Looking around Campo Cortez, I could swear I was at the edge of the Earth.

The elements at the camp carried a message from the animals: “This is where we come to hide.” The wind screamed a battle cry as it burned my face, chilled my body, and threatened to undress me. Half-lifting my head to look at the camp through the wind, I saw two rows of rustic cabins. A nesting osprey screamed from the biggest nest I have ever seen resting on one of the roofs. “Don’t come any closer!” She screeched, and as she vocalized, her babies understood to duck beneath the sticks of the nest.

(Nesting osprey and one of her chicks)

The tide was low: it extended from the obvious shoreline near the first cabin, out past the last cabin in the row. Here, coyotes ran along the sand of the tide in search for food. “The coyote brings fish and shellfish to its pups,” our guide told us.

So, clearly the gray whales were not the only ones who came to the San Ignacio lagoon to birth new life. The entire lagoon shore was teeming with the new life of land, sea, and sky animals. Whales, ospreys, and coyotes were not even the beginning of the overwhelming spectrum of biodiversity we would discover. “This is where we come to hide.”

(Foraging coyote)

Our first whale watch was early the next morning, in a small boat called a panga. The guide taught us how to quickly spot a gray whale, as a heart-shaped mist exploded from an exhaling blowhole. “A mother and baby,” he informed us. It wasn’t long before voices began yelling, “Splash! Splash! Splash!” as we were encouraged to splash the water to draw the whales to us. I was happy to find that the pangas went to the general area where we would spot a whale but we did not harass them - the whales actually would swim close to the boat to check us out. My jaw dropped as a blowhole exploded right next to the boat.

“Leviathon,” I said under my breath. Words will never be enough to describe the feeling of seeing such a massive creature break the surface of the water. “Leviathon” is the only word that could potentially do the feeling justice. This massive sea creature was actually bringing her new baby to see us - and apparently they liked being splashed.

(Adult female gray whale)

It’s common to hear stories of how the mothers lift their newborns up to gaze at the humans, like they find us to be just as much of a spectacle as we found them. The gray whales like to play with humans, to interact with us. I had so much trouble wrapping my head around this concept.

My ethical concerns behind what we were doing rapidly melted away into the water as the cow and calf swam around and under the boat. They peeked their eyes up at us, coming just near enough to feel the splashing water but not the hands outreaching to them. No whale touch this morning.

No whale touch for me the following day, either, although several of the other camp guests encountered what the guides call a “friendly whale” who was loving the pets and scratches so much that everyone on the boat got a chance to caress it. The c

ontact time was long enough that my travel buddy, also named Nicole, was able to pick sea lice off its skin. (pictured right).

The wind was strong enough to cancel one of our afternoon whale watching trips, so we explored life in low tide instead. Now, this was where most of the life really was. We found octopus, sarcastic fringehead fish, and mating blue crabs. I reached my hand into the sand and picked up a handful of shells to look down into my palm and see that the entire handful of Earth was actually moving with life.

Looking back, I'm so grateful for this day to learn witness more life here at the "edge of the Earth." But when after the next few panga whale watching rides, I became the only guest to not have the experience of touching a whale.

(Octopus found hiding during low tide)

Suddenly I felt I was missing out on one of the most magical experiences of a lifetime, and I began to blame myself for it. I’m a firm believer in manifestation and resistance - meaning that we are fully capable of manifesting our desires by removing resistance to the event coming into our lives. I thought, I must be resisting petting a whale because of my ethical concerns.

So, I meditated on play. I contemplated how “play” really never showed up in my life before my recent obsession with acroyoga and partner acrobatics. This play time really was the only time I breathed deeply without making conscious effort. I also thought about how I don’t spend much time actually playing with animals, since I have cats and snakes that largely keep to themselves. “Do you have any idea what a cat does if you splash it with water?!” I would joke to my travel partners when expressing this thought on resistance.

The next few whale watches didn’t bring the close physical encounter that I started to hope for - I went between “I’m okay if I don’t touch a whale” and “wow, everyone knows I’m the only one who didn’t touch a whale, how embarrassing is this…”

(Newborn gray whale in the San Ignacio lagoon).

Three realizations landed heavily on me in the few days that I spent contemplating what might be “wrong” with me. Even typing that out, I recognize it as a ridiculous statement - how could anything be wrong with me? Well, let me tell you my three realizations, and you can decide if there was something wrong.

1) You're not breathing. The wind continued to blow, push, and pull every day at camp. The wind is my least favorite element of all time and I personally felt attacked at the camp. One day when I was meditating and I took a deep breath, I realized: The wind was an externalization of what I needed. I needed to breathe deeply again.

2) Look at your friend. Nicole was shining radiantly the entire time we were at camp. She was easily the most social and pleasant person anyone could hope to encounter, and really connected with the camp - I realized that when I take a group back here for a wellness retreat, she is meant to lead it with me and be the group's guide. This felt like a very, very important moment. She is meant to shine here.

(Nicole and our guide Ricardo looking for Sarcastic fringehead fish)

3) Part of you still doesn’t want to touch a whale. This was a solid exercise in releasing resistance. I’m the kind of person who won’t even ride a horse or camel at a tourist attraction because I want the animals to be left alone to their free behaviors. Here, after seeing the whales enjoy the splashes, pets, and scratches - and especially seeing the mothers willingly allow for human interaction - I released any resistance I had to human-whale interaction in the San Ignacio lagoon. The whales are exhibiting their natural behaviors and doing everything in accordance with their own freedom.

Our final morning at camp arrived with our final gray whale watch before departing the camp. Our guides were so adamant in giving me my physical whale experience that I actually felt ashamed for being singled out. I ended up on a boat with Nicole and two intuitive women who had been suggesting that I communicate telepathically with the whales since the beginning of the trip. While I’m into this kind of concept, it hadn’t worked yet.

(A bottlenose dolphin in the San Ignacio lagoon)

The women were convinced that all of us together on the panga was the magic required for my whale touch. We spotted a mother and calf pair in the distance and our guide stopped the boat. I had an idea.

“I have a request,” I said shyly. “Can we do a group ‘ohm?’”

Everyone on the boat was willing to chant the syllable with me. “OOOOOOOHHHHHHHMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM” It was the most resonant and beautiful group ohm I had the pleasure of chanting.

The panga sped up again in search of new whales. The light was hitting the water just right, and a rainbow was visible in the water gathering in the wake of the boat. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace permeating through my entire body. The rainbow, the ohm, my spiritual friends on the boat with me - it was all perfect.

It wasn’t long before we saw a boat idling with a different mother-calf pair next to it. “Let’s wait to see what they do,” our guide said, “and when that group is finished, we will go closer to them.” We didn’t have to wait long, though.

A baby whale exploded out of the water right next to me. Everyone on the boat screeched with joy. I reached down and touched its nose - its skin was so rubbery! People on the panga were splashing it with water and it rolled around with joy, spending tim

e equally with the three of us engaging with it. Its mother was nearby, swimming around and under the boat next to us. She did not mind that we were interacting with her calf.

All I remember is smiling ear to ear, being completely in the moment. Somewhere, my mom's smile echoed, too. Was it the group ohm that brought the whale to me? Was it my release of resisting touching wildlife as a tourist? My decision to bring my friend Nicole back to the camp as a guide?

Having smiled all the way back to Loreto, I found myself on a bonus whale watch before departing back to San Diego. Fin whales, the second largest species of whale, starred in this scene, in addition to a huge pod of dolphins and a massive group of sea lions. We watched from a distance and also on Johnny’s drone camera as he launched a drone above us.

(California sea lions cooling off)

Johnny is an adventurous and charismatic man who works as an underwater and aerial videographer for major television networking stations. He co-founded Baja Ecotours. This very much explained why staying at Campo Cortez felt like I was dropped in a National Geographic documentary.

At one point he said “Well guys, this is about as close as you get to one of these.” A pair of fin whales, as they often travel in pairs, broke the surface near our boat. An exhalation exploded.

And then I heard the eeriest sound that I will never, ever, forget.

The whale inhaled.

Now, we see and hear videos of blowholes exploding all the time. But the inhale of this gargantuan creature… it was like a woodwind instrument. Air flooding into its body whistled like wind coming through… well, an instrument. It was music. It reminded me to take a deep inhale myself.

(Fin whale off the coast of Loreto)

I looked around and saw that everyone else on the boat was mesmerized and speechless, until Nicole yelled, “The INHALE!” We tried to record it the sound on our smart devices, but videos could never do it justice.

To me, this was a moment that reflected how I was naturally breathing deeply. I began the trip with uncomfortable wind whipping my face, but now was ending it with the music of the most deep and beautiful inhale I have ever experienced.

Every external going-on is the externalization of what is going on in our own experience. Being immersed at the edge of the Earth, where the animals go to hide, brought me back in touch with myself. I released so much of what was bothering me, I returned to Florida a new person.

“How was Mexico?” My friends asked when I returned.

“This might sound crazy but... The whales healed me.”

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