Front seats at a rare whale show

It was, as Stew put it, “a National Geographic moment,” when nature puts on a live show rarely witnessed outside the pages of a glossy magazine or a nature documentary.

Late Thursday afternoon, with the surf quieting down, we heard loud and sharp plop-plop-plop sounds, like thunderclaps, that we soon identified as coming from a humpback whale swimming about a half-mile out from the porch of our waterfront bungalow.

This huge customer was doing a tail-slapping routine in addition to other pirouettes.  The sound-and-splash show went on for a good half hour: Was the whale angry, playing, hurt, doing a mating routine or warning competitors to stay away from its territory? One could only guess.

Plop, plop, fizz,, fizz.

Stew and I had had encounters with whales before, some at quite close range, but none as lively as this one. During a cruise around Antarctica we saw a whale in the distance, barely more than a spot, probably a blue whale, we were told, the largest species of all. 

In Baja California Sur, we went on an early morning whale-watching expedition several years ago. It was foggy the whole time but gray whales were out in force, gently circling our small boat, occasionally turning an inquisitive eye toward us once and then diving, their huge tails, maybe fifteen feet wide, exposed briefly as they gracefully disappeared into the water, barely making a ripple.

I only saw it once or twice, but being the target of a whale’s gaze, however briefly, can be disconcerting. Who’s looking at whom? Or as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle  insistently asked in “Taxi Driver,” “You looking at me?”

But whatever they thought of us–probably nothing but curiosity–these huge animals–up to sixty feet long and weighing forty tons–were anything but threatening, except for the danger of one of them flipping the boat with a playful whack of its tails.

Another surprise was their rough skin, covered with barnacles and other parasites, in addition to scars and bruises. It was nothing like the vinyl-smooth skin of the orcas at Sea World.

Whales migrate from Alaska during the winter to give birth in the warmer waters of California and Mexico. During a boat ride here on Wednesday we didn’t seen any whales, only one dolphin, and a school of tuna-like fish, about two feet long, that Mexicans call “barrilete“.

But our young guide said that last year a female humpback had stayed around all winter and given birth, with mother and calf then heading back north, presumably to enjoy the Alaskan summer. 

During a trip to Iceland last August we also encountered another pod of whales–can’t remember exactly which kind–that were equally non-threatening but kept a safe distance away from us, perhaps because the larger boat we were on might have signaled caution.

We sailed from the small village of Hjalteyri, on the northern coast of Iceland, with a ebullient and typically blond young guide. In Iceland even the dogs and cats seem to be blond. Sailing gear included vinyl insulated bib overalls, and we were served hot chocolate and cinnamon buns. Though not freezing cold, Icelandic summers are decidedly unMexico-like.

In Iceland as well as Norway, which we had visited three or four years before, whale meat appeared on the menus and at fish markets. Whale meat, in case you’re curious, is a black, gelatinous and totally repulsive substance.

Grand finale. (Photo by Margaret River)

Back in Barra de Potosi, in front of our bungalow, the one humpback kept banging its tail on the water repeatedly and at one point–a real treat–it dove, disappeared for a a minute or so, and then shot up in the air until two-thirds of its body was out of the water, crashing noisily afterward. Imagine something the size of a school bus, if not larger, jumping out the water. We had never seen a “breach”, a neat trick you see in nature shows but seldom witness in person.

What was this humpback so excited about? According to one internet site, a humpback slapping its tail or its considerable body fins (about fifteen feet long each), and technically called “lobtailing,” can mean a number of things. The male humpback may be cruising for a mate, or trying to scare off competitors. Or it could be trying to shake off barnacles and other incrustations from its skin. Or perhaps trying to corral a school of small fish the better for eating.

Someone else who was watching this show, after spotting another whale farther out in the distance, cast a vote for the whale shooing off competitors.

Stew and I instead picked another hypothesis to explain the lobtailing by this mammoth visitor: Just like us, this whale was just happy to be in Mexico, enjoying the wonderful weather.

3 thoughts on “Front seats at a rare whale show

  1. Fabulous. With binoculars in hand each and every year, I've watched them come into the Bay of Cuestacomate to give birth and nurture their babies. It is a sight that brings a lump to my throat each and every time. Yes, a National Geographic moment.My son John's degree as a wildlife biologist allowed him to work at South Padre with turtles and dolphins for National Park Service doing research . Ahh, the stories he could tell of the several years of sightings and experiences that he had…..makes you just want to live near the water, ALL the time.


  2. I heard someone say once that a “moment of grace” doesn't necessarily involve religion or some saintly apparition, but an unexpected moment of beauty that manifests itself before us. I think this qualified. al


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