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.


  1. Great post Urmas! I could feel your excitement in the way you described the encounter. I especially like the comparison to the scene with the caribou in Never Cry Wolf - it made me laugh out loud! I could picture you underwater, the great white morbula hunter.

    Keep up the good work Urmas. I look forward to being out there with you on one of your adventures.

  2. I can only second what Dawn has already said. It is a delight to share your experience and I am mucho jealous.

  3. Thank you both. I am going out this Tues and Wed to see what's up.