Story & photos by Mary Harter
It was an unusually gray overcast day for southern Baja in mid April. We were relishing the respite from the often relentless sun and enjoying morning coffee at camp on San Francisquito Island north of La Paz. We were a group of 12 friends and 5 Mexican crew on a 9 day island hopping expedition complete with skiffs and kayaks from La Paz to Loreto.
Some of our party decided to take advantage of the overcast skies and go for a hike up the spectacular ridgeline above camp. A well worn path leads up the north east ridge of the island. From the ridgeline you get a spectacular view of the surrounding Sea of Cortez and islands of Espiritu Santo to the south and San Jose to the north.
While most of us were enjoying morning coffee at camp the hiking party returned from the ridge in a hurry with news of a baby whale they spotted near shore entangled in fishing nets. Everyone at camp immediately set into motion with plans to help rescue the whale. We grabbed ropes and knives and of course cameras and 6 of us jumped into a skiff (otherwise known as a panga in Baja) and headed in the direction of where the entangled whale was last spotted. Meanwhile the hiking group returned to the ridgeline to direct us to the spot with their birds eye view. As we motored around the northeast corner of the island we noticed a couple of whales sounding off in the distance, tails raised high as they dove. They were humpbacks.
We were directed by our folks on the ridge to travel closer to shore and further south and soon we were getting close to the vicinity of where the distressed whale had last been sighted. Suddenly there it was, a humpback calf only about 20 feet in length (mature humpbacks reach 50 feet) with brightly colored fishing net wrapped tightly over most of its head and upper body. The small whale was about 50 yards off shore in about 40 feet of water. Two of our Mexican crew, Carlos Gajon and Manuel Higuera, dove into the water with snorkel gear and knives in hand attempting to swim along side the whale and try to cut the netting off. They were able to snorkel directly above the whale and helplessly watch as it continually dove and tried scrapping the net off on rocks on the sea floor. The poor whale was covered in scraps and cuts, some bleeding, from its fruitless efforts.
Carlos and Manuel's efforts to free dive 40 feet and try cutting the net off were in vain. We finally realized we would need to get the whale into more shallow water in order to effectively work on removing the net from the whale while working on the surface of the water. Manuel dove down and successfully tied a line from our panga to the net entangling the whale. We used the skiff to start pulling the whale toward shallower water. At first the small exhausted whale resisted but almost immediately it relented and gave in to our efforts to assist it. We succeeded in getting it into shallow waters and several more of us abandoned our dry, warm seats in the panga to jump into the cool, gray waters and begin cutting the net. We were now in about 10 feet of water and the small whale remained docile and calm along side our panga at the surface of the sea. Ever since our initial tug from the panga pulling the whale toward shore this highly intelligent animal totally relented to our efforts in freeing it from its bondage. Several of our party adorned with masks and snorkels noticed its eyes wide open staring at them under water. One of our members even noticed this 20 foot probably 15 ton animal close its eye and nudge toward him as he started cutting the net off. Once the knives started slashing the net was off and in our panga within 5 minutes. The whale hovered near our panga as we all cheered and stroked it. Then smoothly and deliberately the whale slowly swam off toward deeper waters. We all cheered again.
Due to the fact I was 6 � months pregnant at the time, I opted not to jump in the water and cut netting off this unfortunate little whale. It took all my will power to refrain from joining my friends in the water as it's always been a dream of mine to look a whale in the eye from underwater. Instead I took on the role of photographing the event. As a biologist and naturalist on whale watching trips for 20 years I know young humpbacks aren't weaned until about 8 months. From the size of this whale calf I imagine it was only about 2 months of age if that. Therefore without its mother's milk supply we didn't have much hope for its survival.
We truly hoped that one of the two humpbacks we saw in the distance when first rounding the island was its mother and that she would soon find her calf net free. Of course we have no way of knowing what happened to the little whale but we felt good in knowing we at least prevented it from suffering any further distress caused by the net.
Several weeks later one of our guides, Carlos, who had participated in the rescue, was guiding another trip and our group was camping on the island of San Francisquito. There they saw the little humpback, alone, swimming among the numerous yachts anchored in the bay known for its safe harbor on the southern end of the island. Several people were snorkeling with the young whale and our group joined in. Both groups of people from trips in April of 2002 now have lasting memories of frolicking with a young humpback whale in the Sea of Cortez.
It's difficult not to anthropomorphize when observing such an event. In my professional education I've been taught as a biologist to never try and convey human feelings upon an animal. But what other options do we have when trying to explain the emotions of an animal we share many similarities with? This young whale, exhausted as it was, still could have dragged our panga down and under had it been inclined. It knew we had good intentions and let us help it. Whether we made any difference for the population of whale kind doesn't really matter. All we know is we feel better to have done something rather than nothing and we know in our hearts our little whale friend felt relieved of its entrapment upon release from the netting entangling its body.
Editor's Note: Mary Harter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the owner of Mar y Aventuras (http://www.mexonline.com/kayakbaja.htm), a kayak and whale watching company in southern Baja. They provide other tours as well. She is an expert on the local area and all it has to offer.