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Having a Whale of a Time in Baja--and Eating Well, Too

April 23, 1987|MARIAN CROMLEY | Cromley is a free-lance writer from Falls Church, Va. and

Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific shore of Baja California, Mexico, was glassy calm. The only sound was the low throb of the Zodiac outboard motor in neutral. Then it came: "Whoosh." The sound was behind us. It came again: "Whoosh." From another direction, a breathy snort. "Whoosh . . . Whoosh . . . Whoosh." Our heads swiveled. From every compass point we could see the gleaming backs of gray whales as they exhaled 15-foot spouts and took a slow slide beneath the sea.

To be completely surrounded by gray whales is to be stunned by the magnificence of these incredible and gentle giants of the sea. This lagoon is one of Baja's romantic havens for the mating and calving of the California gray whale from December until April. Afterward, the whales migrate northward once again, making their return trip along the California coast to their summer home in the Bering Sea. But this Baja lagoon is a place where friendly whales are found--whales that will come right up to a boat and play.

For four nights, 14 of us camped in tents on a wind-battered, isolated outpost directly on the Baja desert shore 600 miles south of the California border. It was intense whale watching by day and a whale of a party by night.

We were in the lagoon on the only permit issued by the Mexican government for a land-based whale-watching operation with permission to use Zodiacs--swift inflatable boats--in a designated area. The number of watchers is closely regulated. There are several large San Diego boats with permits to put in three skiffs on specific days, but their passengers live on the boats. We camped.

We were in the hands of Piet and Karen Van de Mark, owners of Baja Frontier Tours, San Diego. Piet has been a Baja guide for 21 years. Feeding this crowd was not an easy task. They had on their hands a vegetarian, a diabetic, Southern California sushi and salsa lovers, a South Carolina wine expert, Midwesterners who didn't like seafood and were used to dinner at 5:30 p.m., drinkers and non-drinkers. Somehow, it all worked out.

To get to our whale-watchers camp, half of our group, the California crowd, caravaned across the border in four 4-wheel drive vehicles to rendezvous at Quintas Papagayo in Ensenada. Before taking off for the two-day drive into lower Baja, we watched the Van de Marks stock up on football-sized papayas, pineapples, mangos, avocados, jicamas, chayote squash, and Santo Tomas wine, the local Baja wine considered one of Mexico's finest and from the oldest continuously producing wine district.

There were more stops to the beer distributor for cervezas ; the panaderia for Mexican rolls, the bag still warm and deliciously steamy; to the gas station for fuel and a final look under the car to locate the cause of a suspicious "clunk." No one heads for offroad Baja without complete confidence that the car is going to make it. Final marketing stop was at San Quintin to get a flat of strawberries to be shared with the local fishermen's families.

The other half of our group flew into Loreto, were met by tour staff member Monte Woodworth and made the stop to fill propane tanks and buy Mexican baguettes at the French bakery in Santa Rosalia before going offroad at San Ignacio for the tortuous 50-mile, three-hour, spine-jarring ride to the lagoon, a road that isn't found on most Baja maps.

This was not the good life. Everything we ate or drank had to be hauled in, including water. We would have no showers, electricity nor outside communications. What we would have were close-up whales, and that was worth it.

We weren't eating nouvelle Mexican on this trip, but we were surely nouvelle camping--our pride was a solar-powered flush toilet in a pristine white tent. "Mas Cafe" (Spanish for "more coffee") was our 30-foot army tent that served as dining room, cantina, library and study hall. It was outfitted with a complete propane kitchen--oven, burners and refrigerator--and propane hanging lanterns. We had everything but a food processor and microwave oven. We didn't need those because we had Monte Woodworth. Monte was as efficient with a chef's knife at dinner as he was driving a Zodiac by day.

Breakfasts were wonderful, with platters of fresh Mexican fruits, custom-cooked eggs and orange-spiked whole-wheat French toast. Wine lunches on the beach were a lovely timeout from whale watching, but dinners took on a life of their own.

Whale break lunches were in the lee of a sand dune at Rocky Point or on Rusty Truck beach, named for an old flatbed truck whose owner thought he could drive to the mouth of the lagoon and was wrong. This year even the flatbed, usually used for lunch buffets, was under the drifting sand.

Exhilarated by the whales, the sea and the sun, we were always starving. Anchors would be dropped, the coolers would be unloaded and we would tear into Mexican baguettes, stuffing them with pate and cheese, washing it all down with wine, cervezas or fruit juice.

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