Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A week has gone by since my last post and it has been both busy and very good. Not to say that the whale season has been anything like last year ( I have 10 IDs this season whereas I had 28 by this time last season) but that does not necessarily signify anything but vagaries of weather (my being able to go out) or simply a later arrival. I heard from one of my fisherman friends the other day that there are large numbers of Humpbacks off of Todos Santos right now. That would put them here in another two weeks or so…..if they decide to come into The Sea of Cortez this year.

Here are some whales I did encounter and get photos but the water was too cold and it was too early in the day for me to swim with them. I am at that age now where if I go in the water early in the morning and then search for the next 4 to 5 hours the wind chill from the moving boat gets right into the core of my bones, just can’t do that anymore.

This is another really good ID: HB# 8 11

And here’s another mom & calf: HB# 6 & 7

The mom put on a great show of breaching and tail lobbing for the calf and the calf responded by doing a damn fine job of learning. I suspect this may be a yearling that will be weaned this year here in Baja. Come April/May the calf will be making it’s first solo swim north for the big krill feed.

I am once again treated to a month with my adopted family from Quebec. It is an enormous pleasure for me to have them here. They are all intelligent, active, creative and loving. I am a very lucky man to have them as my “extended” family. We are all going out Saturday for a whale search and maybe a dive… is time. I had the special pleasure the other day of taking a morning nature walk with the youngest of the boys, Quentin. He is interested in critters, rocks, trees, fossils etc, etc and I am a retired teacher without an audience. Well, you can imagine the fun I had! Here they all are perched on the Hopi style ladder I built for them instead of steps to their roof.

From the top: Jean-Luc, Brigitte, Antoine, Tristan, Quentin

Also in town last week were a group of people I had not met before and came to know and enjoy. Four were from Ukiah (Tiffany, Kirsten, Micheal and Desmond…..and from hills of N. Carolina, Whitney). It was such a treat to have all these really wonderful people here. I had an especially delightful conversation with Whitney on the drive from The San Jose Airport. She came in later than the others and I agreed to pick her up, lucky me.

I pulled my kayak the other day to try to improve the repair on the keel. I found myself spending too much “head” time worried about another break while out at The WZ alone yesterday, no amount of Cliff Bar would save my kayak this time. I think it’s good now and from this point on it’s up to The Great Mystery (Huichol for whatever is in charge of this fantastic journey).

I did try some BreathWave exercise while out there in The WZ the other day and I have to say it was terrific. Total silence, lightly bobbing on the Sea, eyes closed and filling my cells with pure energy, way cool!

You may recall a statement I made a post or two back about whale entanglements and why I always have at least two knives with me whenever I am in The WZ. Here is what happened a week ago to a colleague of mine, Micheal Fishbach, who monitors the Humpback and Blue population north of me outside Loreto. I will let his e-mailed pictures and comments tell the story:

Hi Everyone, I have been so busy, 10-11 hours on the sea every day so I apologize for the delay. Bt here is the humpback we saved finally for you all to see.

First image is as we found her, you can see a float from the net behind her. It is the video that really shows the entanglement not any still I have.

Second image is of her fluke identification and this whale has a pretty unique one, very complex.

Third is of her breaching shortly after being freed.

Last is just before we left her, maybe goodbye maybe something else but a grand sight.

We have looked long and hard in the past 6 days and twice found a young humpback but in neither case was it our Valentines Day whale.

We will keep searching.

This is a picture from NASA passed on through FB by my dear friend Karen Hensley.
To me: The Great Mystery, The Creator, Grandfather, Aten


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On January 18th I took a few friends out to look for whales and I have been awaiting photos from that day to include in a post. So here they are with a nice little story to go along.

One of the nice things about living down here full time is that every now and again some really special old friends come through and I am able to give them a rare experience. What I call, “The Whale Experience”. This does not necessarily mean diving with them, though many have, but it does mean getting closer to Humpbacks and Blue Whales than is possible for most people. My reward for this is not only their pleasure but also my belief that they will then become “friends” of The Cetacean Nation and spread the word about the wonder of these fellow earthly travelers. Since starting to do this since 2004 I have had the pleasure of introducing dozens of old, and new, friends to The Cetacean Nation.

So about 3 weeks ago these old friends, and one new one, were in the area, the winds were right, and we went out. In anticipation of possibly diving with them they all suited up before the adventure.

From left, Susanna Pepperwood, Laura Hamburg, Addison (?) and Carrie Hamburg

I can’t remember exactly but I think we saw some dolphin, turtles and Mobulas but my recollections dim as I get older. We did however indeed cross paths with a Humpback Whale. This guy as a matter of fact.

HB# 2 11, "Laura's Whale

I call him a guy because we had the distinct pleasure of coming across a “singer”. This is a male Humpback carrying last years song of The East Pacific Humpbacks and inviting some new verses (or introducing them) from other male Humpbacks and/or just announcing his intention to engage in combat for a lady this year.

To hear the song of The Humpback in real time is a treat that I continue to find almost too much to bear in it’s beauty. We could hear it clearly on the surface and vibrating through the hull of the panga. He was clearly near, and to me, announcing his willingness to meet. After getting my ID shot (I was so wanting to go in that I rushed my shot so it is not a world class shot but…I’m only human) I turned to my friends and said, “I’m going in, suit up if you are coming”.

Within minutes I was ready and I saw that of the group it was Laura Hamburg who was going to join me. What I didn’t know was she had never had a mask and snorkel on or worn a wet suit….we are talking novice, and she is going in to 500’ of water in front of a full on 40 ton Humpback…oh well, she’s a grown woman! I tell her where to sit on the gunnel of the panga to do a reverse flip into the water and ask her if she has done this before (talk about a stupid question) and she say’s no. Well, we are nearing the whale and I am explaining to her the technique, she is nodding as though she is just about to do her first dive into a pool and we go in. I tell her to look for me right away, clear her snorkel and mask and there we are with the whale coming at us.

Laura hamburg and I......and HB# 2 11

We do this twice and get within about 50’ of the whale but visibility is bad. Nevertheless, that whale was within a distance of us that it knew full well our position AND ATTITUDE, and gifted us with a close pass. Here are two pics of Laura and me in the water after the whale has passed. I really admire the willingness and courage of this young lady to do this. It reminded me of how proud I was of my son Zack last year when we dove into a veritable circus of three male Humpback fighters and their 40+ Bottlenose Dolphin audience (and raucous to say the least) and he also never having done anything quite like that before!

Two other recent adventures (my but the year is full of excitement already) to relate. On the 9th I went out and did get a “world class” ID on this Humpback. Ain’t it a beaut!

HB# 3 11

Shortly after the above photo we received a call from El Cardonal on the radio that there were some Humpbacks in front of the village. Vicente and I high balled over and found this mom and calf. The mom is HB# 4 11 and the calf, HB# 5 11.

First mom and calf for me this season.

The next day I go out and find no Humpbacks but when we go further out into the Blue Whale Zone (8-15 miles) we come across two Blue Whales. What makes it special is that two new friends, Lon & Liz Fitton from Los Barriles are with me and get to have “The Whale Experience” with these very cool critters. The day was beautiful, the Sea calm, The Whale cool and I went in. Same old problem, visibility, but Vicente said I got REAL close, maybe 20-30’….I could FEEL it, just couldn’t see it underwater.

B# 1 11

So….the adventure continues, can’t wait to see what’s over the next horizon.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bigtimes in the water with my "friends" this last two weeks

It has been a very special two weeks for me in a number of ways. My first experience took place on the 30th of Jan. There was another break in the wind so I went out to The WZ to look for an encounter. I did't see anything for quite a while so I just lay back in my kayak and listened with my eyes shut. I heard what sounded like the surface activity of a "bait ball" but louder than usual. I see coming at me from about 1/2 mile away a large herd of dolphins. As they get closer I see that it is a a herd of at least 100 maybe as many as 200. I paddle directly in their path and bail out of my kayak just before they reach me. Visibility is bad so I onle see a few go by but definitely more than ever before. I climb back into my kayak and chase them but they are moving too fast. Oh well, it was cool. But then the whole herd turns around and heads right back at me.....the whole herd! I dive in front of them again and this time they come much closer so I really get a lot of encounters. They are clearly checking me out. I chase them, make noises, wave etc to let them know I am one of them. After they pass I climb out again, start paddling back to the beach and damned if they don't turn AGAIN and come for me. Well, out I go and this time they are everywhere around me, closer still and I FEEL I have been accepted. Incredible.

The next day was another good one wind wise, so I went out looking for Humpbacks with my neighbor’s daughters, Tyler and Lexie. The Cook family has been one of my longest and most generous supporters of my whale work here in Baja, and it was a delight to take two of their three charming and intelligent daughters out for a search.

The day was a bit dark and cold but they were game and ended up on our route south bundled up as best they could. We ran pretty fast because we had received word from one of the fisherman near La Ribera (Vicente has all his buddies looking out for whales for us) that there were two Humpbacks there. La Ribera is a good ½ hr haul from El Cardonal so we were traveling fast….therefore the cold.

Lexie on left, Tyler next to her. They are two very attractive young women, I promise to include a photo of them in a later post.



Tyler & Lexie's dad and my good friend, Alex, kite surfing the big wind this week

When we got to the area the whales were not there of course so we moved further south a bit since that was the direction the fisherman told us they were going (this part of the story becomes more relevant a bit later). Unfortunately (fortunately???) we didn’t go far enough and missed them by minutes because on our way back north we got a call that they were now at Punta Arena and we could have easily found them had we gone just a little further south. Field work can often be disappointing that way but I love being out at Sea so much it’s all good for me regardless.

On our way back north both Vicente and Tyler see blows in front of us about 100yds away. I see some dorsals (fins) but they look like dolphins to me….and no real blows but they are both certain they are whales (Tyler has been out with me before so she knows what to look for). Well, they are whales but ORCAS!!

Now I saw some Orcas about 5 years ago while kayaking but they were at least a half mile off so no encounter. These are right in front of us and there must be at least 6 maybe more…and they are very active! When we close on the pod we see that they are hunting/playing with a good-sized herd of Mobulas (rays related to the Manta Ray but smaller). Tyler and I start taking photos as fast as we can because this is way out of the ordinary experience one gets even if you really, really work at it and have lots and lots of money. Vicente is blown away too, he has never seen this before and it is going on all around the panga. It is also clear that there are more than 6, perhaps as many as 10, or even more. Most are females but there are one or two males in evidence for sure; one does a full breach only 10 ft from the panga to take a look at us (and NO I am not anthropomorphizing).

While I am photographing I am suddenly struck by the thought that this is on my “Bucket List”. I have been talking about swimming with the Orcas for years. I called it the hope for the “swim of a lifetime”! However, I am a bit trepidacious because I am only human. And then Lexie says, “Urmas, this is your chance” (or something to that effect because neither of us remember what was actually said). I put my camera away, donned my dive gear (no tanks) and ask Vicente to get me near them. Vicente decides to put me in THE MIDDLE of them. We stop, I bail out and suddenly I am surrounded by frantic Mobulas and joyous top predator hunters having a good old time.

I try to remember now as I write this, “was I fearful at this point”? And the answer is no, NOT AT ALL. This is not because I am brave or courageous believe me, it is because I FEEL that I am now part of something ELSE and that the Orcas as well as the Mobulas are accepting me into their “world” and will do me no harm. Not because I am “good” but because…..well, I love them all.

At one point a large Orca passes by me no more than 5’ away with a Mobula in it’s mouth, looks at me, releases the Mobula and takes a closer look at me. What passes through my mind is her voice saying, “my, my, will you look at that, it’s a human”, kindly and with more than just some degree of surprise.

After the pod moves on a bit, the visibility sucks, I can only see about 30’ so Vicente pulls the panga over, I climb out and he asks, “Un otro tiempo”? So we get back in their middle and he drops me off again. Now I’m really into it. I want to be part of the Orca mind so I dive as though chasing Mobulas (think of the Caribou scene in the movie, “Never Cry Wolf”)…..way cool, now I’m getting some real interaction. We don't see any blood or body parts in the water, and from my perspective under and on top of the water amongst them they did not seem to be feeding as much as playing/training the young ones.

I have Orcas all around me checking me out. At one point 6 Orcas pass within 4’ of me (not a ripple do I feel) and all turn on their sides to get a good look, I wave and yell through my snorkel some unintelligible thing meant to say, “hey amigos”! Then I get the feeling that they are getting used to me being there and just occasionally glance at me while harassing a Mobula, I have experienced Orca mind. They are after all THE MOST INTELLIGENT CREATURE in The OCEAN WORLD.

By now I’m pretty tired and cold so I climb out. Tyler looks at me and with not a waver in her voice asks, “can I go in”? I had to say no, the responsibility was to great. I don’t recommend this for everyone, it is dangerous. They are large, have big teeth and personality. I am at heart a biologist and have a certain trust in the animal world, particularly whales and dolphins…..and I have led a good long life already. Please understand this has nothing to do with courage….or a death wish!

Oh, the mother & calf Humpbacks down by La Ribera. You see, they should (?) have been continuing north but didn’t, they returned south. Vicente and I agreed that she knew the Orcas were just north of her and she needed to protect the calf (one of The Orcas favorite meals is baby Humpback tongue) so left the area. If this bothers you then I certainly hope you are not a biologist or you must be suffering terribly in your work….or you are in denial.

The movies of the encounter just take too long to upload so you'll have to catch the show at another time.

My good friend and whale mentor, Dr. Jorge Urban Ramierez at UABCS in La Paz, is checking my dorsal photos against his from last week where a large pod of Orcas were feeding near Isla Espirito Santo north of me.

The Great Mystery has once again blessed me. I MUST assume I am deserving, or it makes no sense.

Later in the day, after a hot tub at Lynn and Bob’s and a good strong screwdriver I am famished for a hamburger. I drive to Los Algodones (the village 1 mile south) to see if my friend Antonio’s restaurant is open. It isn’t but they are preparing for a political meeting. Antonio asks if I want to take a burger with me. I think he means just the meat so I can cook a burger at home. No, he gets his wife too cook me a “grande” burger as I tell the assembly stories about whales, my Orca dive and why they must not let the development company from Monterey fence the arroyo.

As I drive back to my village on our dirt road at a stately 5 miles an hour, eating the best hamburger I have ever had I think…..I am “HOME”.

*Addendum: Orcas in The Sea of Cortez are known to eat the Mobulas.