Cetacean Blues

You never know what to expect from a whale. On a whale watch a long time ago off the coast of New England, an Atlantic right whale swam under our boat and took a long look at the humans on deck. It was a transcendent moment for me. I felt that at that instant, the whale really saw us. And down we gazed–all the time aware that we could be pitched into the Atlantic with one flip of his mighty tail.

The Smithsonian's Blue Whale was installed in 1963
The Smithsonian’s Blue Whale was installed 1963.

Since then, it seems my life has led me to whales. The Natural History Museum in Washington DC, part of the Smithsonian, used to have a huge fiberglass model of a Blue Whale which hung from the ceiling of an exhibit called “Life in the Sea.” Our family visited that museum often, and all visitors walked under the model, which, quite simply, portrayed the largest creature on the planet poised to dive. That Blue Whale got to me.

Now, years later, when my husband and I started researching places we wanted to go, Baja California rose to the top. Both my husband and I instantly agreed that was the perfect destination. And for us, it was.

Me trying to photograph a Blue Whale tail
Me trying to photograph a Blue Whale tail

Naturally, a Blue Whale was the first whale we saw after we boarded our home for 11 days, Searcher (see my previous blog post “Things I Learned in Baja.”). The naturalist on board told us the whale was feeding on red pelagic crabs and krill. Gigantic and graceful, slow and deliberate, the whale rose to the surface and dove, showing us a tiny dorsal fin far back on its body.

It has a small dorsal fin far back on the body
It has a small dorsal fin far back on the body


Its tail was beautiful and almost seemed sculpted. When it began to surface again, which sometimes took up to 20 minutes, the water just beneath the surface turned a brilliant speckled turquoise in the sun…hence, a blue whale.

A Blue Whale's spout hangs in the air
A Blue Whale’s spout hangs in the air

Old whale hands can tell all the whales by their distinctive spouts. The Blue Whale’s is tall, columnar and hangs in the air a long time. It’s unmistakeable.

Crew searching on Searcher
Crew searching on Searcher

On Searcher, the crew constantly scanned the water for spouts with high-powered binoculars, and we were often rewarded with whale viewing.

Blue Whales all around
Blue Whales all around

On our second day, south of the Island of San Benito, we encountered many Blue Whales, all busy feeding on crabs and krill. Art, the captain explained that his call would be as if we were on a clock–with the prow of the boat always at 12. He would, for instance, call out over the PA, “ 10 o’clock, “ and then, “2 o’clock, “ but pretty soon, on that special day, whales were all around us. We could hear the spouts, see the whales and it was wonderful. Everyone on the boat stood on deck in awe–we were tiny dots on a small boat in a big ocean in the Last Kingdom of the Whales. And at that moment we knew it.


Side note: The first night on Searcher, the captain asked what whale we most wanted to see and why. Several of the Brits on board mentioned the Blue Whale model in the British Museum. I, of course, was affected by the Blue Whale model in the Smithsonian. Come to find out, the Smithsonian’s Blue Whale, which was installed in 1963, was modeled on the British one. Ours is no longer in the Natural History Museum, but I think the British model is still in the British Museum. Here’s some interesting reading I discovered about the whale models that influenced many of us on our whale watch:  http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/whales_si.html


Things I Learned in Baja

We went on a three week vacation last month. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Our goal was to see whales and birds in Baja California, Mexico. In preparation, we got out some old duffel bags because we were warned our boat–Searcher–was small.

Small but mighty–Searcher

We rolled and packed what we thought we would wear for temps between 50-80 degrees. We needed sturdy shoes and bathing suits, snorkel equipment and water shoes. Also in the mix were cameras, binoculars, and various field guides, all of which were heavy.
And clothes. According to the literature, we did not need ‘smart’ clothes, but we needed to  carry our own bags. (We always fail at this, but we try.)

I learned a few things on this trip, listed below, with elaboration. The list is not in any particular order, and some things I re-learned:

1. You can share 4 bathrooms, two of them with showers, with 28 other people. It helps that the crew cleans and tidies the bathrooms every day and changes the bathmats. There is not as much waiting as you might think. Also, don’t be too surprised if the occupancy sign says “vacant” and you walk in on someone. People forget. Side note: All toilet stalls everywhere should have “vacancy” and “occupied” signs. It helps.

A handy sign
A handy sign

2.*** You can get used to sleeping anywhere. Our bunks were small and my top bunk was challenging to get into. (Leg flinging was involved.) John’s had a cut-out section in the area reserved for his feet, due to the mysterious tiny sink in our cabin.

Small means small

3. Three weeks without TV, only occasional internet and no phone is doable. You will not miss the TV. Trust me. It is fun to actually talk to people and listen to their stories.

4. Jeans don’t need to be washed frequently. If you get a spot, sponge it off and hope for the best. Three weeks is not a long time to wear jeans.

5. Take sunscreen lip gloss. Your lips will thank you and you will be more comfortable.

6. Flip flops work. They are light, and you can wear them on a boat which is pitching and rolling. If that happens, stand firm and bend you knees.  All shoes you  take must be tried and true.  On the boat, walk carefully and hang on.

7. Take sea sick meds ahead of time–don’t wait until your journey begins. Take the pill even if the sea is calm when you get up in the morning. Things change.

Place used tea bags in the silver container on the shelf
Place used tea bags in the square silver container on the shelf near the coffee machine

8. If you are on a boat with Brits, find out what the tea bag etiquette is. Do not take your teabag out and place it on the table near food. Find the waste bin and jettison it. (Use the container for coffee stirrers.)

If you need them, you probably have some
If you need them, you probably have some

9. Little bars of soap you’ve kept from other hotels are pretty handy if soap is not provided in a shower. (At last! A use for little soaps.) 9A. Take many plastic bags as well. That way, you can keep using the soap from shower to shower…and you will feel like the queen of recycling.

10. Bring and use ear plugs when you travel. Sleeping masks are also recommended. (Both are also useful on red-eye flights; drugs are even better.)


One final note–when you are bone-tired, go to bed. Forget about time zones, stick to Ship’s Time and adjust. And if the captain blares the PA at 10 pm for everyone to get up and watch the smooth-tailed mobula rays attracted by the boat’s night-time searchlight, get up. (I plan to share much more on the fantastic critters we saw in later posts.)  John has already posted some wonderful photos and video:

If the captain calls you to the side, get up!

***It should be noted that I learned the sleep-anywhere lesson as a freshman at Syracuse University. My room was in an old house, used by freshman who didn’t know any better. It was tiny, with a single bed and soft mattress. My room had a full length window facing the busiest street in the city. The first time a motorcycle roared by at 2 a.m., I swear I levitated over the bed. But I got used to it. You can get used to most anything.

You can see how old the cottages were--I'm not that old, but they were still in use in 1966.
You can see how old the cottages were–I’m not that old, but they were still in use in 1965.