The Lagoon: Encounters with the Whales of San Ignacio
By James Michael Dorsey
Diversion Books; hardcover, 288 pages; $28.99
James Michael Dorsey is a certified crustacean naturalist with expertise in whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and seals. He has worked for twenty-five years as an on-board naturalist on whale boats from several Southern California Harbors, and he currently works for a whale watching company in Moss Landing, California.
In Dorsey's new, intriguing book The Lagoon, he brings to life the magic of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico, where he was the resident naturalist in the Gray Whale nursery for twenty years. This is a sanctuary of the Gray Whales, and a nursery for Eschritus robustus since before recorded history. It is the only place on Earth where animals in their natural aquatic environment routinely seek out human contact.
This is a sanctuary not just literally but spiritually, and nobody understands that better than Dorsey and his wife, Irene, who found themselves growing attached to the intelligent, spirited creatures and the lagoon itself. This unexpected, deep connection to the place and its people evolved into a lifetime of chasing whales and self-discovery.
Dorsey weaves his experiences with the history of San Ignacio Lagoon, which includes its origin as a killing ground for whales and its evolution into a sanctuary. He introduces the reader to the people who make the lagoon special, as well as the whales, and their individual personalities and science behind their behavior.
The main thing Dorsey brings across is that there is a certain magic to the human connection with animals, which can teach us a lot about ourselves and our purpose on Earth.
Dorsey writes of his connection with whales in this heartwarming excerpt: "An immense gray back parted the water, rising like an island being born, while the mist from the whale's blow coated us like dew. She logged on top, then turned toward our panga, taking our measure. My fists were clenched in anticipation. This was a massive wild animal, an adult Pacific gray whale, a 'devilfish,' in its natural domain. Our only defense against such a giant was blind faith. I thought of the old stories, and it came to me that one of my own ancestors might have plunged a harpoon into one of hers.
I looked back at Maldo, hand on the tiller like the old sea dog he was. He was smiling, whispering to the whale in a voice meant only for her, using his magic to bring her to us. This was not fear, but love. The great back began to move in our direction, leaving a spreading wake on the surface.
A century and a half before our arrival, the waters of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico, ran red. The lagoon was a killing ground ruled by those who sought to gain riches from whale oil. Today, along Scammon's Lagoon, it is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the largest undeveloped wildlife sanctuary in the Americas. Along with Magdalena Bay, these three great nursery lagoons of central Baja are the only places on Earth where wild animals in their natural habitat routinely seek human contact.
San Ignacio's existence has never been without threat. In the lagoon, the old world collides with the new and is balanced on a fragile edge. In the past, the danger was only men with harpoons, while today it is men in business suits, a changing environment, people who love whales too much, and even other whales.
The whale sounded, sliding gradually beneath the surface where her gray and white camouflage could be tracked. Her flukes passed below us, revealing a missing piece the size of a white shark bite. Her tail was twice as wide as I am tall, but its movement was barely perceptible. Then the waters parted, and her massive head was next to us as she slowly rolled from side to side, giving us a thorough look. She was as long as two of our boats and outweighed us by close to forty tons. Her white, barnacle-encrusted rostrum betrayed her age as perhaps close to seventy, a fairly long life span for a creature so pursued by predators. She bore a lifetime of scars, most from shark attacks, and half a dozen prop strikes that she would not have felt because of her eight-inch armor of blubber. She hugged the boat like an old friend, diving below to rub her back on our keel as she rocked us back and forth, and when she came up, I looked deep into her blowhole, feeling her inner heat.
Living history was within my reach, an ancient and intelligent creature, unchanged in millenia, whose social order was beyond my understanding. Her ancestors roamed both land and sea for countless centuries before my own tribe arrived on the Earth. What stories she could tell. I found myself talking to her and realized I had never done so with an animal other than a dog.
She rolled on her side, and I caught my reflection in her iris, black, within a deep brown eye the size of my fist, and luminescent, with eyelashes any model would kill for. She did not blink, but held my gaze as I imagined her thoughts, willing me to understand. It was not the vacant look of a cow or pig that required no presence, but an intelligent look inquiring about the strange creature in her domain. I pressed my hand against her flank, finding it smooth and pliable like firm rubber while she returned the pressure, pushing against me. She came to each of us in turn, her mouth barely open, revealing aging, yellowed baleen, then submerged beneath. As she turned upside down below us, the panga began to turn in a slow circle. She was balancing us on her stomach, holding us in place with her pectoral flippers, and Maldo laughed as she played with us like a giant bathtub toy. When she had enough, she disappeared as easily as her blow in a breeze, a thermal upon the water. How long she stayed I cannot recall, but it was not long enough. As Maldo started the engine, Irene's and my tears of joy merged with the sea spray."