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40 Years of Baja: A Whale to Remember

It's been 40 years since we pioneered expeditions in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. Sven Lindblad was immediately enchanted by this magical place and knew he had to share it with other travelers. To celebrate four decades, we're throwing it back to the 1980s when we were still known as Special Expeditions. Robert "Pete" Pederson was a young naturalist at the time and in his third year with the company, he had a gray whale encounter which he says: "caught me totally off guard and expanded from a glimmer of light into the brillance of sun on snow." Here, he shares the moment that has stayed with him forever. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


I was on my knees, chest and body draped over the warm, black tube of a Zodiac, peering into the water of Baja's Magdalena Bay. Fellow passengers, also on their knees as if in some odd position of prayer, searched the limits of their vision. Pacific swells rolled through the mouth of Boca de Soledad and made their way along the channel to rock the boat with a gentle motion. It was a day to feel connected to the Earth. We were surrounded by a dome of pale blue sky with light wisps of clouds. Shorelines of soft beige sand dunes formed the horizon, broken only by the distant olive strands of mangroves and the dancing water at the lagoon entrance. Suddenly, our gaze was riveted by a slight color difference in the water. The light green turned just a bit grayish. Our eyes strained to see the mottled fuzzy blotches on the object that rose slowly toward us.

Baja Gray Whale Above Water.jpg

A few minutes earlier, we all had watched a gray whale which appeared genuinely curious about our boat. Now, it had returned. But why? Even when you read all the important journals about whales, learn their lengths and weights, study all their physiological tricks, follow the calves' development, trace their migrations, and ponder what they eat—none of it really answers some basic questions. In the complex world of maneuvering through ocean tides and currents, finding mates and bearing calves, why should a rubber boat floating around in a lagoon have any attraction to a whale? I doubt that other flotsam has the same appeal. It's really people in that boat that draw their curiosity.

Close Up Gray Whale Eye.jpg

As we watched, we became acutely aware of the size of this form that stretched out below us. It was an enormous cloud of mottled gray. The outlines of blotches and then creases and lines came into focus. And suddenly I saw an almost imperceptible movement within a circular blotch surrounded by lines. The whale rose even closer and I realized it wasn't a blotch at all. It was a distinct hazel eye and it was looking directly at me.

It did not just stare blankly but studied my hair, looked at my beard, passed its gaze over my nose, and then looked deeply into my eyes.
Pete Pederson

It looked past all those biology classes I sat through, between the volumes of whale literature I read, and beyond the thousands of gray whales in my memory. It looked into my soul. My first reaction was an uneasy one, but that was quickly replaced by an overwhelming excitement. I, in turn, peered into much more than the eye of an elk or a dull-witted cow or all those related animals that this creature broke from 50 million years ago. It was as though the oceanic world had sent me their messenger. A scroll it did not carry. Wildness is that unfettered connection creatures have with the rest of the earth. Whales evolved, were born, nurtured, raised, and were fed by the sea. They are a part of it as much as any nut or bolt might be to the gods of our world. That message became crystal clear to me as I knelt there. 

To say that a whale has any memory of what a human looks like is a bit fanciful, but I prefer that thought. A gray whale out there somewhere carries the image of me with it for 10,000 miles every year. It doesn't matter what it thinks of me. What matters is that I no longer look at 45-foot-long, 35-ton masses of soft mammalian flesh, but instead, watch animals that have curiosities, likes and dislikes, emotions and thoughts, no matter at what level. That experience changed my perceptions. It added compassion. I am lucky enough to be involved with like-minded, passionate people who love and respect what I feel is important and worthy of regard. I have been given another tool to meet that end. Even more important, whales have been transformed from cetaceans into friends.

Join us this winter in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez and celebrate our 40 years of creating magical memories among the whales.