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Feeling Like They're Among Friends : For Whale Watchers, It's a Near-Perfect Experience

March 27, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the warm, salty waters of a shallow lagoon on the western coast of Baja California recently, Vivian Richman's dream came true.

She kissed a whale.

She leaned over the side of a small boat and planted a big kiss on the smooth, rubbery nose of a young Pacific gray whale.

And the strangest part was that the whale seemed to enjoy it too. In fact, it was at least partly the whale's idea.

"He came right up to the boat and his head came straight out of the water and I leaned over and kissed it," said Richman, 55, a retired businesswoman from Malibu who was one of several dozen members of a whale-watching expedition sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.

"It was just so large, but so gentle. It was just incredible."

The scene of this close encounter between vastly disproportionate mammals--at a little over a hundred pounds, Richman is about one-fiftieth the size of the young whale she kissed--was San Ignacio Lagoon, a narrow, 16-mile-long inlet that is virtually teeming with gray whales during the winter and early spring. Situated about 600 miles southeast of Los Angeles on the desert shore of southern Baja California, San Ignacio Lagoon and other lagoons nearby are the mating and birthing grounds of thousands of Pacific gray whales who divide their time between Baja and their feeding grounds near Alaska.

During the first few months of every year, the lagoon is so chock-full of whales that it's almost impossible to look at any particular patch of water for five minutes without seeing one, or three, or a dozen. Sometimes it's just the knuckled dorsal curve of their bodies cutting through the surface; other times they "blow," spewing a flume of vapor out of their breathing holes, or breach (shooting out of the water and falling back with a tremendous splash), or perform a curious movement called "spy-hopping," in which the whale sticks its head vertically out of the water and eyeballs the surroundings.

In recent years, San Ignacio Lagoon has become the ultimate whale watcher's destination, not only because so many whales congregate there, but also because while in the lagoon the whales often display behavior that scientists say is probably unique in all the world: They actually seek out close physical contact with humans.

The young whales in particular swim right up to small boats, pop their heads out of the water, look around with eyes the size of baseballs and then, like dogs wanting to be petted, nuzzle up to the boats and the outstretched hands of the humans aboard. They seem to enjoy the contact; with the mother keeping a watchful eye nearby, some of the young whales will frolic around the boats for half an hour or more. Sometimes the mother will even nudge her offspring toward the boats, as if eager for the young whale to get a look at the strange creatures inside.

"It was obvious the mother was actually steering the calf over," said Santa Monica attorney John Hoaglund, a self-described outdoorsman who termed the excursion "among the most exciting things I've ever done in my life."

*

The contact is always the whales' choice. The Mexican government regulates not only the number of boats allowed in the lagoons but the activities of the whale watchers as well. Boats are restricted to the outer third of the lagoon. Chasing or harassing the whales in any way is prohibited, and would be counterproductive to whale watching anyway. As it is, the small whale-watching skiffs, called pangas , take off from shore or from larger boats and simply park themselves in the whales' general area. Then they wait to see if the whales will come to them.

If the weather conditions are right--no wind and flat water--and the whales are in the mood, it's usually only a short wait before a whale and her calf will initiate the contact.

For Richman, Hoaglund and the other members of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium expedition, which sailed to the lagoon aboard the 110-foot fishing boat Royal Polaris out of San Diego, the encounters were awe-inspiring. All of them saw gray whales up close and personal, from only a few feet away. Almost all actually touched some of the whales. And everyone described the experience as being, well, almost mystical.

"I touched a whale! With this hand right here, I touched it!" exclaimed Marydith Piepenbrink, 70, a San Pedro nurse. "I can die happy now. To see them so close is great, but to actually touch one is . . . well, it's hard to explain. It was just a wonderful experience."

"I felt like I was in church," Ewa Pauker of Topanga Canyon said of her whale-touching experience. "It's like nothing I've ever known before."

What the whales got out of it is anybody's guess. In fact, no one knows why the whales in the lagoon behave in the gentle, friendly way they do.

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