After being baptized by two whales, an animal lover has a dharma insight.
I’m sitting with six other whale watchers in a 20-foot fishing boat in the middle of Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon, the last undisturbed California gray whale nursery left on earth. Each year hundreds of pregnant grays travel 5,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to give birth in this warm, tranquil place. But it’s not just curiosity about the birthing phenomenon that has drawn me here. These whales are known to be friendly, and I’m hoping to experience “interbeing,” a term used by the renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh to describe the feeling of no-boundary between humans and other species.
Scanning the horizon, I glimpse whales every few minutes—breaching, rising vertically out of the water, and spouting in the distance. Suddenly, we spot a mother and calf cruising just 50 yards off the starboard side, and my heart starts racing. In perfect unison, the pair gracefully undulates through the emerald sea, rising and falling in sync with the waves as if they and the waves were tuned to the same rhythm. Thirty feet from us, they dive, and in a moment the calf resurfaces on the opposite side of the boat near the stern. Unsteady, like a toddler, he thrusts his dimpled rostrum out of the water and the people at the rear of the boat reach out and touch him; one woman plants a kiss.
The mother hovers just below the boat as if to send us a firm message: Be careful with my baby. The calf is as long as our vessel, the mother at least twice its length. One wrong move and all of us passengers could go tumbling into the water. The mother then surfaces beside her calf, and I can see her majestic body encrusted with white barnacles, the signature and striking marking of gray whales.
Once again the mother and calf submerge. Through the crystal-clear water I see them moving under the boat toward the bow, where I am seated. All of a sudden, the calf rises up next to me and I reach out to touch him. My heart stops. It feels as if he’s touching me back. I glance down and see the mother staring up at me. Her eye is larger than my hand, and she draws me in with her gaze. My sense of a separate self vanishes and I’m filled with love.
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I am totally unprepared for what happens next. The mother releases a cloud of bubbles underwater, and as it breaks the surface it drenches me. The calf then slaps the water with its tail, showering me again. I’ve been baptized by the whales of San Ignacio Lagoon. This, I think, is interbeing.
During the ride back to camp, my sense of euphoria fades as I imagine a time 150 years earlier when whalers turned this sanctuary into a slaughterhouse. In those days, gray whales were called “devil fish” because they’d often attack whaling boats. By the time hunting was banned in 1937, only a few dozen animals remained. As I think of my baptism, I wonder whether the whales’ friendliness toward us might have been a message of forgiveness to take back to the outside world.
Although gray whales have been removed from the endangered species list, they still aren’t safe from humans. Many businesses are keen to develop the lagoon, and I shudder to think how high-rise
hotels and resort marinas with cruise ships could spoil this place and interfere with the whales’ age-old patterns of migration.
What surprises me, though, is how the people who live here, the ones who barely eke out an income, have resisted selling their land rights to developers. Groups like Summertree Institute, which sponsored my excursion, have launched educational campaigns and economic development efforts to help locals create sustainable eco-tourism. If residents can make a living supporting an undeveloped lagoon, they’ll be less likely to sell.
When I met Pachico Mayoral, the fisherman who established one of the first whale-watching camps in the lagoon, he told me about his first encounter with these gentle creatures. In February 1972 he was out fishing alone when a gray whale surfaced beside him. He was frightened at first, but then, as if a veil dropped, his fear evaporated. He reached into the water and the whale rubbed up against his hand.
“The whales, they are my family,” Mayoral says. His son Ranulfo carries on his father’s work, and his granddaughter Adelina is studying marine biology in school and hopes one day to use her knowledge to help the whales.
So this, I discover, is interbeing. The whales and the lagoon’s human inhabitants are interdependent. Preserving the lagoon for future generations of humans means preserving it for the whales. And I think the whales know it.
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About Our Author
Kathryn Arnold, former editorial director at Yoga Journal, volunteers at a marine mammal center.