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Friday, February 11, 2011

2/10/2011 - Whale Ho!

Although I had the alarm set for 0515, I was pretty sure I wouldn't need it. Even though our little travel alarm that we bought for our first trip to La Paz back in 2002 has never failed us except due to operator error, I still never quite believe it's really going to wake us when it's supposed to. So my biological clock usually starts waking me up about an hour ahead of time after which I go back to sleep for 15 minutes at a time and finally end up getting up about 15 minutes before the alarm was going to go off. Today was no exception. So I was out of bed with the coffee water on by 0505. The van from EspirituBaja was supposed to pick us up in front of the gate to Marina del Palmar between 0600 and 0615.

We went back and forth about what to wear and what to take along. We were going to be on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula and expected it to be cooler than La Paz. However, we didn't want to roast on the trip over and back, either. We ended up wearing regulation long clothes and taking sweatshirts and jackets with. After we were dressed and had our travel mugs full of coffee, we headed up to the gate to await our ride.

The first little surprise came when we got to the front gate. It was locked. According to the girl in the office when we checked in, it's never locked. But it sure was now. Okay, so how are we supposed to get out of here? I could just see our ride coming and then leaving again as we were helplessly trapped behind the fence. And this fence is designed for keeping people out and looked like it would be every bit as effective at keeping us in. We were pretty sure that there was usually a night watchman but who knew where? So, I started rattling the gate but that didn't really seem very effective. Just then a van approached. It turned as if to drive into the marina, stopping at the gate. A closer look revealed that this definitely wasn't the van we were waiting for, however. But, either it's approach or my gate rattling had brought the watchman out of hibernation. He ambled over to open the gate for the van and let us out at the same time. Whew!

About 0615 or a little after, not one but two vans form EspirituBaja pulled up. The front one was full and there was room for Lulu and I in the second one although, we couldn't sit next to each other. Alberto, our driver, made the introductions and we were off. It was still quite dark out.

Our traveling companions were all from one big family, the Flores family. Dr. & Sra. Flores live in La Paz and the family was getting together to celebrate his 60th birthday. The members we met were from La Paz, Jalisco, Guadalajara (I think) and Los Angeles. More family was due to arrive between now and the weekend. Dr. Flores' birthday was basically an excuse to have a family reunion.

Like many Mexican families, this one did love to talk. And, of course, they were speaking Spanish. And so was Alberto, our driver, although he tried to remember to translate at least some of his parts of the conversation for me (I was sitting up front with him and I'm not sure if Lulu could hear most of what he said as she was sitting behind me). So, Lulu and I amused ourselves by trying to follow the conversations. Comparing notes later, we found that we mostly had the same experience: pick up a word here and there, maybe an occasional phrase, but not nearly enough to get the gist of the conversations. This might be a very long day.

Our destination was Puerto Lopez Mateo which was about a two to two and a half hour drive. About an hour into the drive we stopped at a little rancho. There are a jillion of these little places all over the countryside. From little buildings that can be completely falling down with just one table and a couple of chairs all the way to places that look like they're in pretty good repair and could actually be modest restaurants.

They usually have Pacifico Cerveza advertisements painted on their walls and are often painted in the blue and white of Pacifico and, if they have a sign, Pacific donated it as well. The one we stopped at was quite a bit fancier than the one in the picture. I think it was opened just for us although a couple of other travelers stopped in for breakfast while we were there and certainly weren't turned away. Breakfast options were burritos, quesadillas, machaca, or machaca con huevos. Lulu and I both opted for the machaca con huevos. We were sitting across from the elder of the Flores family, Mike. I tried conversing with him in Spanish for a bit but hit a wall at one of his responses. I explained that my Spanish was very poor and he immediately switched to very fluent English. Turns out that he is the branch of the family that lives in Los Angeles. His son, who also lives in LA, was on the trip as well and also spoke fluent English (obviously), so at least we had a couple of folks to talk to. Turns out that most, though not all, of the family had at least some English.

Breakfast was plentiful, relaxed, and excellent. Afterwards, we all stretched our legs a little and used the baños. I wish I'd taken a photo of the baños. There were two 2-seaters. Each baño was a concrete block building with two "rooms". Inside each room was a toilet and a wastebasket. Period. One room had no door and the other side had a piece of plywood sort of hanging on a couple of hinges that, with a bit of coaxing, could be used as a door after a fashion. There was a tank full of water on the roof for flushing. Crude, clean enough, and basic. But they served their purpose. The baños point out something that I really love about the Mexican people that we've met so far. Obviously the folks in our group came from various walks of life and were of various income levels although none of them were poor, at least not anymore. But I didn't hear one single disparaging word about the baños. Not one. And they didn't apologize for them either. They just seem to take things in their stride. Although I'm sure that there probably is snobbery and elitism here, I certainly haven't witnessed it. Everyone just seems to take things as they are and maybe remembers when their situation was not as rosy as it is today. I really like this accepting attitude and am trying to get myself to be a little more Mexican and a lot less judgmental.

Yeah, fine, but what's this got to do with whales? Not much, really. But, as long-time readers know, when you embark on one of my journeys, you get the whole package, like it or not.

After breakfast (desayuno) we drove for about another hour. On the way we passed through Ciudad Constitución, the only town of any size along the way. It's primarily a farming town. The surrounding area grows oranges, corn, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes and other things that Alberto told me but I've forgotten. The town looks like and reminds me of mid-size agriculture-based towns in the US of the 1950s or maybe the 60s. Don't know what it is but it just has that feel to me. If you're old enough, picture one of the black and white films you saw in school as a kid. The ones that were about some other place. The narrator would be telling you about the town and its products while you watched footage of cool old cars driving in and angle-parking along main street. Women in dresses and men in hats walked along the sidewalks exchanging pleasantries. Cd. Constitución reminded me of that kind of town. Of course, that's just from driving through as we never actually got out of the van. And, of course, the women mostly weren't in dresses and the men's hats were either baseball caps or straw cowboy hats. And they weren't doing angled head-in parking but still, there was a feel.

Eventually, just after Ciudad Insurgentes, another farm town up the road from Cd. Constitución, we turned off towards Pto. Lopez Mateo. The road got really rough at this point and stayed that way pretty much the whole way, which must have been 10 or 15 miles. Along the way, as we neared the town, Alberto pointed out pallets that had been put atop every 10th power pole. These were the bases for osprey (aguilas pescadores) to build their nests. And almost every nest had at least one osprey.

The power company installed the pallets because, with no tall trees for probably hundreds of miles in any direction, the osprey liked using the power poles for nesting sites and, before the pallets were introduced, frequently caused power outages when their nests would short across a couple of the wires.

Puerto Lopez Mateo is a town located pretty far to the north of the channel that becomes Bahia Magdalena.

The town is a fishing village and has a sardine cannery as well. But, just looking around town, you'd think that whale watching was the only reason they're all here. It has apparently become a pretty good business.

The pangas, or lanchas, you see in the photo are typical of what we headed out in although ours was longer than the one in the foreground, sporting 5 seats instead of 3. After getting outfitted with life jackets, we boarded and headed out into the bay.

Of course we immediately get excited when we see a spout way the hell and gone across the bay. The driver starts heading in that direction and we start seeing more grey whales. Soon we're fairly close to a mother and her calf. This is the sighting of choice because, besides being cute, the calf need sto surface for air way more often than the adults which means they can't just submerge and come back up clear across the bay from us. The panga drivers must not be allowed to drive up too close to the whales although, if a whale approaches the boat they don't have to retreat. Now before I start getting into photos, let me just say that the pictures don't do justice to the experience. We never saw any whale come out of the water further than it needed to to take a breath. No jumping, damn the luck. Also, none of the whales swam up to the boat to get a look at us or get their heads scratched. Again, damn the luck. What we did see was the backs of a bunch of whales. Must have seen 30 or more during the course of the 2 hour trip. That being said, here are the best of the dozens of photos I took:

Hard to tell but this is a mama and her calf:

My two fluke shots:

It was a good thing I took 2 cameras. I took my Canon Powershot A530 which I love because it has a viewfinder. This is really important when taking photos in the bright sunlight when the little screens on the cameras are really hard to see. However, the battery on the Canon ran down about halfway through the trip so I had to switch to my carry-around camera, an Olympus T-100 which, unfortunately, doesn't have a viewfinder. Consequently, some of my shots were off-center or managed to miss the action altogether.

The most awe-inspiring moment happened at about the halfway point of the outing. I was sitting there looking over the side when I noticed that the water was really light colored. Yeah, light colored and whale-shaped! A freakin' whale was swimming under the boat and not all that far under either. Naturally, I didn't have enough wherewithal to snap a shot but here's what it looked like after it cleared the boat. You can see the lighter-colored water which is the whale. It's pretty lame compared to watching the whale swim under the boat but it is what it is:

After two hours out among the whales, our time was up and we headed back to shore. The next phase of the trip was lunch (almuerzo). They went all out feeding us platters containing fried fish, camarones (shrimp) al diablo, and longosta (lobster) along with rice, beans and tortillas. Here we are enjoying comida along with our trip-mates, la familia Flores:

After lunch, we stopped at the grey whale skeleton that the locals put together. The story is that the whale beached itself and died near Pto. Mateo Lopez. Scientists came from all over to check it out to see if they could figure out what makes whales beach themselves. Once they were done, the townsfolk got together and cleaned the skeleton up, painted the bones to protect them from the brutal tropical sun and then reassembled them for display. We hadn't planned on taking one of these obligatory photos but Dr. Flores insisted so we handed him our camera, although I think ultimately his nephew took the shot.

Finally, back in the van for the 2-hour+ drive back to La Paz. We arrived back at Marina del Palmar almost exactly 12 hours after we set out. It was a good day. But I sure would have liked to get a shot like these:


Anonymous said...

So good to talk with you. You two are having a ball and that is wonderful What a winter. It is a good thing that Whale didn't burp while it was under the boat or you two would be toast along with your companions. Really enjoy your blogs and as I have said before Dad really enjoys them. he travels right along with you. Love, Mom

2ndreef said...

I like your journeys with the whole package. By the way, how does an excursion like this compare to the same in the states price wise?
Also, is the gate at the marina always locked during the night hours?
Enjoyed the story.

Steve and Lulu said...

Never priced a similar excursion in the States but this trip was $120USD each. Included everything.

Not sure about the gate. We seldom venture out much past 9 PM or so and it 's still open then. I suspect that, it being the wee hours of the morning, the watchman decided a little snooze might be in order so he locked things up. We just happened to get up earlier than he's probably used to.


Mid-Life Cruising! said...

How awesome! As you said, we're sure the pics don't do the experience justice. It had to be so cool to be in such close vicinity to these huge and graceful creatures.