A Perfect Day
Wind is upon us and the smell of salt. The waters of Bahia Magdalena that surround our lancha are green and still. Carlos fires up the Johnson outboards and soon the ship Don Pedro, where we slept, grows faint behind us. Once we skirt the shallows, Carlos points ahead. Motors at idle, we drift into a loose pod of gray whales, who are calving, nursing, and tending their young all around us. It’s March, 1982. It seems like a perfect day.
The lagoon waters are 68°F, an ideal temperature for a gray whale nursery. Carlos says that some of the mothers are very friendly. Minutes later, he points again, kills the outboards and motions for us to sit down. A giant gray swims directly toward us. She spouts, raises her fluke, and disappears beneath the lancha. The gray bumps the bottom of the boat with her back. A woman seated in front of me shrieks and grabs hold of her husband. The rest of us grasp for anything within reach. The boat holds a steady course.
Carlos laughs and says: “She’s just playing with us. They do that.” Minutes later, he says: “Mira! Mira! Here come a mother and her calf.”
The mother stops, but the calf approaches. I leave my seat and kneel at the lancha’s starboard side. Not four feet from me, the tiny giant spy-hops; she stands upright on her tail perpendicular to the water. Her dark eye stares into mine while I run my hand across her rubbery looking face. Her skin feels like rough leather covered with coarse hair. Seconds later, the calf closes her eye and opens it again as if to wink at me. She then slides sideways downward into the bay and disappears.
“Dios mío,” says Carlos. “She’s just two weeks old.” He swears he’s never seen a mother let a newborn calf come between her and the lancha.
A thunderous thwacking sound interrupts. I don’t remember hurling through the air, only that I crashed and plunged deep into the bay water and surfaced out of breath. Scattered around me, the heads of passengers bobbed up and down. The old man, who’d sat beside me moments before, moaned and struggled to stay afloat until Carlos reached him. The impact had ripped off his life jacket. Farther away, a woman, whose face was covered with blood, floated on her back, and cried for help. When I tried to swim toward her, my left arm would not move. I kicked and struggled with the other arm until I reached her.
“The boat! Swim toward the boat!” Carlos shouted. The hull of the flat-bottomed lancha had broken in two. The half of the boat that the weight of the outboards had not sunk floated nearby. All eight of us had hold of it within minutes.
“The mother, she went crazy,” said Carlos.
It was a perfect day until it wasn’t.
Publicity had drawn us to the lagoon. The brochures promised exceptional encounters with gentle giants. We knew that hunters had nearly extinguished the gray whale by the time governments had outlawed killing them a few decades earlier. But we did not know that gray whales are fierce warriors, or that whalers called them “devilfish” and feared them. Unlike other whale species, gray whales, and especially females with newborn calves, would injure and kill whalers by surfacing under their boats. We also knew that almost all gray whales migrate every year to Bahia Magdalena and two other Baja nurseries. But the brochures did not tell us that nearly all the slaughter had occurred at these three nurseries.
Did we pay the price that day for our forbearers? Were the iniquities of the fathers visited on the children? The mother who attacked us was old enough to have witnessed the whaling massacres. I have wondered if her memories of the killing fields ignited fear for her newborn. And I have often wondered how the innocent calf I caressed remembers that day.
David DeLange is a former philosophy professor and a recently retired psychotherapist. A past President of Los Angeles Audubon Society, he has been active in environmental, and especially, coastal protection. He lives in Redondo Beach, California and writes in his backyard, a home to many bird species and an extended family of Fox Squirrels, who have names. This Fall, Fear of Monkeys will publish his story “Political Persuasion as Art and Craft.”
See more of his work in 9.2