Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pacific Gray Whales: The Sequel

By Kristy McCaffrey

“Out there are whales, living by light and ancient brain...”
           ~ Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan, Sightings


We’re sitting in a military airport lounge in Ensenada awaiting a 2-1/2 hour flight to San Ignacio Lagoon, a remote inlet on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur and the only undeveloped nursery and breeding ground for gray whales in the world. Guests returning from the lagoon have disembarked from the propeller-driven plane we’re about to board and crowd into the waiting area, queuing up for a bag search before they can move on. They are sunburned, their hair askew, but are more than pleased to pass along what they experienced in one-word revelations.



A Pacific Gray whale.

They’ve just spent three days interacting with Pacific Gray whales in one of three calving lagoons located in Baja Mexico. I know of what they speak, having done it myself last April for one afternoon. The extraordinary experience left me awestruck, and you can read that blog post here. Naturally, I wanted to return and immediately began planning it. Because I craved more time with the leviathans, I booked a 5-day trip at a camp along the shores of the lagoon. I also brought along my husband, and my oldest son Sam and his girlfriend Alex. They were Baja-newbies. Soon, they’d be initiates to a remarkable communion between man and whale.

My husband and I at the dirt airstrip at San Ignacio Lagoon,
Baja California Sur, Mexico.

The plane ride offers our first glimpse of the whales, and I press my face to the window with longing. The 35- to 45-foot beauties are about the size of a piece of rice. We probably wouldn’t have noticed them if the pilot, Enrique, hadn’t pointed them out. The anticipation builds.

Flying over San Ignacio Lagoon.

Our cabins at Campo Cortez, run by Baja Ecotours.

After many hours of travel by air and bus, we arrive at the lagoon along with 20 other intrepid travelers. This isn’t the type of excursion a casual tourist takes. Campo Cortez is run by Baja Ecotours. It’s small, clean, and efficient, utilizing mostly wind and solar power. Everyone disburses to individual huts that have electrical outlets with enough juice to charge most devices (i.e. camera batteries—there is no internet or cell service so we all shut our phones off); laptops must be plugged in at the palapa, or dining hall. There are four toilets and two showers, although it’s recommended that you bathe every other day since fresh water must be trucked in.

Inside our cabin.

Our first Baja sunset. On the right is a giant Osprey, or Sea Hawk, nest.

As darkness descends, the night sky is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. There are no towns, no lights, no airplanes overhead. The arm of the Milky Way streaks above us and I’m witness to a starry sky that our ancestors viewed nightly. I wonder what the whales are doing. Is day and night so different for them? Do they sleep? For months I’ve educated myself about the Pacific Gray whale, but I’m hungry for more. In the palapa is a shelf filled with books about Eschrichtius robustus. Here is what I learn.

A Pacific Gray whale calf and mother.

** Pacific Gray whales have twice almost been slaughtered to extinction. In 1946 they were placed under protection and their numbers have rebounded to over 20,000. Unfortunately, the North Atlantic Gray whales didn’t fair as well. They are extinct. The Western North Pacific Gray whale, located in the waters north of Japan, is currently struggling in numbers, with as few as 130 remaining.

** Female grays are larger than males.

My husband making contact with an adult gray female.

** Pacific Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any creature on Earth. They travel from the cold, food-rich waters north of Alaska in the summer to the warm Baja lagoons to mate and give birth during the winter and then back again, traveling well over 10,000 miles.

** Mating takes several days and usually involves two males and one female, although it’s not unheard of for dozens of whales to congregate for a massive love-fest.

A gray calf approaches our panga.

** Gray whales can live 50-70 years, and maybe even longer. The longest living whale, however, is the bowhead. Some have been found to be over 200 years old, determined by old spearheads embedded in their flesh. Other long-living creatures are tortoises (150 years) and giant clams (220 years).

** One origin for the word ‘whale’ may come from the Old English ‘Hval’, meaning wheel—a whale’s body rolls through the water.

Sam touching an adult female. She is heavily barnacled.

** Baby gray whales gain 190 lbs. per day while nursing in the lagoon. They don’t suckle but rather bump a slit on mom’s belly which stimulates a squirt of fat-rich milk. It’s the consistency of toothpaste, making it easy for the calf to swallow in the water.

** Baby grays are born tail first and there is usually another female present who acts as a midwife.

A gray calf opens its mouth, exposing the baleen at the top of its jaw.

** There is an account of a male calf left in the lagoon for an entire year rather than migrating north. Motherless, he lived in the inlet until the grays returned. He managed to survive on what little food was present in the lagoon, although he was quite thin.

** Last year an adult gray became stranded on a sandbar while trying to leave the lagoon. Several panga boats (26-foot open skiffs used for whale viewing) were brought in and drivers, called pangueros, swirled the water so that the whale was able to dislodge himself.

My husband and his new friend, a baby gray whale.

** The whales begin arriving into the lagoon in January. Mating and birthing commences. By the end of February the males and single females begin leaving in droves to start the long swim north. The mothers with calves, however, remain as long as they can to get the young big and strong. Mom isn’t eating though and can’t remain indefinitely. March and early April are good times for human-whale interaction, as mom and babies are ‘hanging out’. It’s thought playing with the humans on the boats is a diversion for the whales.

** Gray whales are bottom-feeders, creating trenches on the sea floor. The only animal who alters their environment more are elephants.

Sam and a baby gray whale.

On our first trip into the lagoon we’re gifted with a mother and calf who seek contact with those of us on the panga. I can’t stop grinning. Giant whales are swimming right up to us. The mother, between 35 and 45 feet long, takes up residence in the water beside our small skiff. She’s huge. No photo can prepare you for what it’s like to be near something that huge. (Hint: she’s about the size of a school bus.) We’re in the open ocean—the San Ignacio Lagoon is a misnomer. Yes, it’s buffered by land, but it’s really just a giant swath of ocean, and a home for giant mammals. Have I said how big they are?

Our panga.

A baby gray swims by.

These magnificent creatures have arrived to check us out, to interact with us, to see us. I’m humbled by their trust, by their curiosity and, ultimately, by their graciousness.

My husband with an adult female. They generally stayed away, letting
the babies do all the playing, but this one was very friendly. If you look
closely you can see her eye. She's rolled to the side so she can get a good
look at my hubby. 

I'm one happy girl. This is a baby and they have the personalities of

A Pacific Gray whale calf. Beautiful.

Alex communing with a baby gray.

Mother and calf court us with swimming and diving, watching us with their soulful eyes, enjoying it when we rub their snouts. They nudge the boat and mom hovers underneath, always watchful of her baby. They twist and roll, and when mom does dive beneath the panga she keeps her fins close to her body. They are gentle, inquisitive, and playful and stay with us for at least 45 minutes. I know I’m not the only one on the boat who is utterly in love. We would have five more trips into the lagoon, but this one is blessed in a way that only hindsight can recognize.

This panga wasn't in our group, so I don't know these people. I hope they
find this photo because that baby really came out of the water for a kiss.

On one afternoon excursion, despite at least 8-10 mother-calf pairs swimming around us, not one whale comes to our boat. With several pangas floating in the area, the whales perform dozens of spy-hops—popping their heads out of the water to have a look around. We even witness a baby attempt one. Why do they choose to interact some days and not others? One possibility is the wind, which has picked up speed, the lagoon awash in whitecaps. Conditions like this may deter the mothers. This theory gains traction when, the following gusty afternoon, a baby smashes his nose into our boat while attempting to maneuver close. Ouch.

An adult female spy-hops to have a look around.

Spy-hopping. This behavior is very frequent in the lagoons, but less so
as the whales migrate north.

But I also sense that the whales have other matters that require their focus. At times, an approaching calf would be cut off by mom. Perhaps she’s telling her youngster something like, “Pay attention. Today we’re practicing our diving. You can play with the humans once you’ve completed your lessons.”

A baby gray whale, probably about 2 months old.

Sam with a baby. They often roll to the sides so they can see you.

The viewing area is in the lower section of San Ignacio Lagoon. Outside of it, the whales are to be left alone. The shallow upper lagoon is where the females give birth and care for the newborn calves. In the middle lagoon, the mothers swim with the babies to strengthen their skills. It’s in the lower lagoon that much of the social behavior occurs, and where the whales come to meet the curious and ecstatic people who’ve come from all over the world to greet them. Also, perhaps the moms need an extracurricular activity for the babies, and humans make great babysitters.

Despite all the commotion present in the viewing area—or maybe because of it—we come across a mother and calf resting. This behavior is easier to recognize than you might think because they literally don’t move from their spot in the water except to rhythmically take a breath, lolling like a couple of giant logs. Whales don’t sleep like we do, but rather rest while part of the brain remains active to insure they continue surface breathing. They also require less slumber than humans.

A tail fluke. This usually precedes a deep dive.

Alex and a baby gray.

The babies would often approach the boats from the stern and work their way
along the side until they'd visited with each person.

To have six excursions into the lagoon allows for the opportunity to observe the whales in many different moods. To me, this is the best part of spending an extended period of time with these amazing creatures. On our very last whale-watch, we have only a bit of interaction but I don’t feel disappointed. As gray whales move around us, I feel privileged to be in their world, if only for a short time. Their presence mixes with my own, and I sense their life-force, as strong and loving and playful as my own. Near the end of our time, a mom surfaces near the boat. We’re downwind of her blow spout and when she exhales, her mist coats us. Then the baby does it. Baptism by whale. I feel it clear to my bones.

A gray whale mother and calf.

Later, as I reflect upon the experience, the tears come. Having direct contact with a species such as this bridges a gap you never knew existed until you’re face to face with them, looking into their eyes, smiling ear-to-ear as the calves poke the boat and spin it in a slow circle. They’re intrigued and playful with us, as curious about humans as we are of them.

Life is ineffable and unexplainable, but the child deep within ourselves doesn’t concern herself with such existential pangs. She opens her arms wide and embraces the world in all its wonder. We are a part of the whales, and they are a part of us. And, like the child, the whales simply remind us to pay attention.

The blow holes of a baby gray. They create a heart-shaped plume.

Jean-Michel Cousteau calls gray whales “breathing planets.” A communion between humans and whales is occurring right now on this planet down in the Baja. The whales are as entranced with us as we are with them. May we make responsible decisions with the earth, for our sake and for these giants who exhibit intelligence and an uncommon compassion.

“Whale watching takes on a whole new world of meaning when the whale is watching you.”
            ~ Dr. Sylvia Earle

Recommended Reading:
Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia by Dick Russell
Sightings by Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan
Eyes of the Wild by Eleanor O’Hanlon

Until next time...

Stay in touch with Kristy

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Feral Dogs, Hexes, and Living With The Navajo

By Kristy McCaffrey

When I was nine years old, my parents, my sister and I moved to the Navajo Indian Reservation. I very much did not want to go. My dad, who has long had a deep and abiding respect for Native Americans, saw this as a chance to give back with his life. He took a job as an accountant with an arts and crafts store in Window Rock, Arizona—capital of the Navajo Nation. We obtained a house just across the border in New Mexico, in a small town aptly called “Navajo,” supported by a local sawmill.

It was 1975 and we lived in a neighborhood that consisted of generic government housing. We weren’t rich by any means, but when we moved in, it became quickly known that we had a working telephone and my mother was generous in sharing kitchen items. After a time, she had to start saying no. The charity was simply getting out-of-hand. Unfortunately, many of the Navajo were complacent and drank too much. Even as a child, it struck me as a rather depressing place to live.

View from our front door ~ Navajo, New Mexico ~ 1975.
My sister, nearly four years younger and in kindergarten, embraced the journey with much more enthusiasm. She quickly came home speaking Navajo. I, however, was in fourth-grade and only one of two white girls in the classroom. I was teased constantly, for having braces, for being different, for being pale. I became friends with Nancy, the only other white girl in a class of well over forty children, because our Indian classmates assumed we should be friends and naturally herded us together. At first, I was glad for a comrade, but it didn’t take long to realize Nancy was mean, overbearing and manipulative. She repeatedly betrayed my confidences. These usually entailed discussions about boys in class, and hardly seem of importance now, but at nine years old it devastated me. From it grew anger and bitterness, which I naturally directed at my environment. How easy it is to let this be a template into another culture.

We weren’t the only outsiders in the community. My large class had four teachers, two of which were a white husband and wife team. My mother soon began babysitting their toddler daughter, so it was natural that they would look out for me. This was a double-edged sword, since being viewed as the teachers’ favorite didn’t further endear me to my classmates. However, they did teach me separately in math, since my skills were more advanced than the other students, and one day, when one of the Navajo instructors was absent, I was assigned to administer spelling quizzes all day. These experiences certainly bolstered my confidence.

Every so often a high point would occur. School field trips were not of the normal variety, with one a hike into the nearby wilderness to view a natural stone arch. My mother, who accompanied us, was amazed the Navajo children knew the names of all the local vegetation. Other incidents were somewhere between odd and almost comical. When my sister’s little Navajo playmates would return home after an afternoon at our house, my mother would have to drive one little girl despite that she lived two doors down because the child feared a shape-shifter named Billy Blue Eyes. When I contracted strep throat, a visit to the local clinic had my mother holding my screaming self down as an elderly Navajo woman repeatedly stabbed my backside with a dull needle filled with penicillin. And some experiences chilled to the bone. The teenage girl next door getting beat up by her boyfriend, who at one point pulled a gun. The dying puppy my mother rescued from our front porch, the one I’d callously walked by for days, because dogs died so frequently on our street that I couldn’t bear to open my heart for fear the pain would swallow me whole.

Navajo, New Mexico in 1993 when I returned with my husband.
It's considered the most Navajo town in the U.S., with 95%
of its residents having full or partial Navajo ancestry.
One night, a Navajo man came to our front door with a shotgun. He said he was going to shoot our dog, believing that he’d killed his daughter’s poodle, the animal reportedly torn apart. There was a pack of rather mean canines that roamed the neighborhood—they’d already attacked me one day while walking home from school—so there was no doubt they had done the slaying. My dad had erected a barbed-wire fence for our two dogs, Labrador-mixes and not feral by any means, so we were certain that neither was guilty. (The fence was to protect them.) My dad spent several hours, and several beers along with my mom’s enchiladas, trying to convince the man not to shoot, and thankfully it worked.

I developed a panic-filled fear of AIM walkers, fueled by stories heard from classmates. I now know that this acronym stands for the American Indian Movement, a group dedicated to addressing the issues of present-day Native Americans, but in my scared mind they were ghost-like shape-shifters that prowled the wash behind our house. There were many nights I literally shook in terror while trying to sleep, fearing they would snatch me from my bed.

Our house sat at the base of a sheer red rock cliff. At times, the monolith stifled me with its presence, but it also beckoned to be climbed. So, one afternoon, my mom, dad, and sister clambered up its face to the top. At the midway point, a precipitous rock face had to be traversed and our overweight black Labrador, Raquel, couldn’t navigate the steep path. She paced at the bottom, barking and whining, while our other dog, Rommell, scrambled onward with us. The expansive view at the top, coupled with the solitude and palpable energy in the land, left me with bittersweet memories. The region drenched the soul with possibilities, but I know now that I was too young to appreciate it, to channel it in a useful way. In some regards, the Navajo themselves, at that place and that time, had lost their center as well.

The sheer cliff across the street from our house. I climbed
to the top with my family and one of my dogs.
And then there was the hex. At the arts and crafts store that employed my father, a worker found a Styrofoam cup tucked away on a shelf. Inside were various items that included a torn corner of a $5, $10 and $20 bill. It was immediately clear to those who discovered it that a curse had been placed. Soon thereafter, a medicine man was called. Since it involved all of the employees, my dad was allowed, despite being a white man, to participate in the ceremonies conducted.

At the first ritual, the medicine man found a buried pot outside the building, at the base of the famous local landmark, the window rock. This was accomplished when his hand trembled over the exact location. On the outside of the pot, stick figures represented the employees, and lightning bolts painted above indicated death by lightning strike. At the time, we were having terrible storms every day. Inside were pieces of coral, turquoise and silver, and a section of human skull.

Window Rock
At the second ceremony, a bowl filled with some type of tea was passed around to ingest, and then each employee was asked to look into a crystal to identify who had placed the hex. My dad says he saw nothing, but it was generally agreed that the perpetrator was a former employee who had been fired. She was part of a major Navajo clan, and her dismissal had possibly angered the wrong people. But the curse spoke of deeper problems within the Navajo and their way of life. The crafts people—those who made Indian jewelry and the iconic Navajo weavings—were at odds with the administration, which included my dad. There were those who wanted progress, and those who didn’t. At the conclusion of the ceremony, after a sand painting was created, the piece of skull inside the pot was burned. Two female employees reported instant relief from a terrible headache that had plagued them all evening. Back at home, at the same time, my mother said I’d been distraught and crying for hours from pains in my head, which immediately stopped when the bone was destroyed. It seemed family members had also been included in the hex.

My dad never attended the third, and final, observance—the Blessing Way—because we had returned to Phoenix. He has always joked that the hex was never fully removed. As evidence, he cites various mishaps that occur whenever he and my mother return to the Navajo Reservation: car breakdowns, money stolen, and in one instance missing a critical turnoff because five Indians stood in front of a directional sign.

I was glad to leave, but in the years since it’s been clear the experience left a lasting impression. No matter how hard I resisted, no matter how much I hardened my heart, the red rock and Navajo people seeped into the cracks of my armor, scaring me with the rawness and underlying pain, but also mesmerizing my senses with unseen forces that all but vibrated in and around me.


As I prepared this essay for publication on this blog (culled from writings on the subject I've penned over the years), it dawned on me why I've tended toward the mystical in several of my books, and why I've always been curious about the lives of Native Americans in the 1800's. Although I lived for less than a year with the Navajo, their painful history collided with my own anxieties and left a permanent marker in my mind. I've often considered that year a pivotal one in my development, especially as a storyteller. Even at nine years old, I couldn't keep the spirits at bay; they murmured in my ear at every turn. And so, I continually pursue tales that follow the footprints of those whispers.

I included details from the hex in my historical western romance novel INTO THE LAND OF SHADOWS. I also explored the Navajo tradition as it related to the world of the supernatural.

Stay in touch with Kristy